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Public database significantly undercounts former drug labs in Pa., impacting home buyers, renters

 Members of the Pennsylvania State Police Clandestine Lab Response Team remove chemicals from the front porch of a home in Minersville in 2013.
Members of the Pennsylvania State Police Clandestine Lab Response Team remove chemicals from the front porch of a home in Minersville in 2013.

The only online federal database that allows people to see whether their home or property was contaminated with toxic chemicals used to make drugs like methamphetamine significantly undercounts the number of sites in Pennsylvania, according to data obtained by Spotlight PA.

Similar reporting discrepancies exist in neighboring states, but Pennsylvania is one of several nationwide that do not have laws or guidelines outlining how contaminated properties should be cleaned or when they are safe to live in, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pennsylvania also does not require sellers or landlords to disclose a former drug lab or dump site to future buyers or tenants.

A free public database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration lists addresses for 51 former drug labs or dump sites in Pennsylvania from 2017 to 2021. Most of those incidents involved meth production, but some labs may have been for other synthetic drugs.

Pennsylvania State Police, the agency that typically handles drug lab busts here, logged 923 incidents during that same time period. In 2021 alone, State Police reported 11 times more incidents than the DEA. Like the federal data, most of these incidents — about 85% — were related to meth.

Meth lab seizures peaked nationwide in 2004 and have been decreasing over the past 17 years, but the drug is still widely available throughout the country, a 2020 DEA report shows.

The majority of recent lab busts were small operations producing only a few ounces of meth at a time. Those incidents were concentrated in the Northeast, with states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan reporting some of the highest numbers of lab, dump site, and equipment seizures.

State Police records show that lab or dump site incidents over the past five years primarily occurred in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, with other hotspots in Bedford, Columbia, Indiana, and Luzerne counties.

Many household chemicals can be used to produce meth. When combined during the cooking process, residue is produced that can seep into walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture, according to the EPA.

The health risk and cleanup process varies depending on which methods and chemicals were used, said Matt Stripp, director of toxicology in the emergency department at AHN Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Metals like lead or mercury might stay on surfaces unless they are wiped away, while other chemicals can linger in the air until a space is thoroughly ventilated.

“I think that gets to the heart of the issue,” Stripp said. “How do you ensure that all of these different things are removed when you have little to go on as to what was actually involved in the process?”

Meth use has predictable side effects: sweating, high blood pressure, and agitation. But low-level, chronic exposure to meth-related residue left in a home could trigger a range of symptoms that are hard to diagnose, and likely wouldn’t land someone in an emergency room, Stripp said.

The EPA has “voluntary guidelines” for testing and remediating a former meth lab, but states are not required to adopt them. Still, the EPA reported in August 2021 that a majority of states had some type of local guideline or law for cleaning properties that once contained a meth lab.

In Pennsylvania, the burden of cleaning a former meth lab falls to the property owner. The cost, which can be covered by insurance, runs from $15,000 to $30,000, companies providing remediation services told Spotlight PA.

The state’s housing market has boomed over the past two years, driving up prices in competitive markets around the Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh metro areas.

As similar trends play out across the country and buyers dip into housing stock that may have been overlooked in a less competitive market, remediation services like Meth Lab Cleanup Company expect to see more of these calls come their way, said Joseph Mazzuca, the company’s CEO of operations.

The Florida-based company handles about 700 meth remediation projects nationwide each year, including a current project in Pennsylvania.

“Nowadays, with politics and COVID, it’s been crazy,” Mazucca said of the housing market. “A little bit more time and we’re probably going to see a lot of those homes torn down or cleaned up. People are looking for inventory.”

Data disparities

Pennsylvania’s lack of meth remediation and disclosure requirements has made headlines when egregious cases led to financial problems and health concerns for residents.

One case in 2010 gained national attention after a couple bought a home in Bucks County only to find out days after moving in that the home was a former meth lab, CNN reported at the time. In addition to experiencing health problems like headaches and breathing problems, they were stuck with a $61,000 bill to remediate the home.

Six years later, an Erie County resident found herself in a similar situation after moving into a rental home where meth was produced two years earlier. She worried that leftover residue could make her family sick, but had no way out of the lease agreement, Erie News Now reported.

Homes like these might show up in the public DEA database, known as the National Clandestine Laboratory Register, which lists the state, county, city, street address, and date when officials found the drug lab or dump site. But there’s no guarantee, said Patrick Trainor, public information officer for the DEA. No federal law requires state or local law enforcement agencies to report incidents to the agency.

In states like Pennsylvania, that lack of requirements has led to inconsistent data and murky explanations for how information is collected.

Local law enforcement can report incidents to the DEA using a form, Trainor said. If the DEA is called in to assist with an investigation or to help collect hazardous items, chemicals, or equipment used to make drugs, the agency asks local law enforcement to complete that form.

Spotlight PA has filed a federal public records request for all forms submitted by Pennsylvania since 2001, but has not yet received those records.

Pennsylvania State Police asks the agency to assist when a case is going to be prosecuted at the federal level, said Lieutenant Adam Reed, communications director for Pennsylvania State Police. Reed did not explain if or when State Police report incidents that do not involve the DEA. He attributed the data disparities to different systems for classifying responses.

State Police record when the Clandestine Laboratory Response Team is activated to visit sites where troopers or other local law enforcement found a drug lab.

The team, made up of two full-time and 50 part-time troopers, along with seven civilian chemists, collects evidence and dismantles the labs.

Unlike the information in the DEA database, the data gathered by the State Police are not online or easily available to the public. Spotlight PA obtained records showing the date, county and municipality, and type of drug involved in each incident throughPennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law. State Police denied the newsroom’s request for street addresses.

Spotlight PA has appealed the decision to the state Office of Open Records.

Without addresses, it’s difficult to determine how many of the more than 900 incidents reported over the past five years could pose a risk to the public. The creation of a statewide registry of contaminated sites would require action by lawmakers, Reed told Spotlight PA.

Spotlight PA reached out to several homeowners linked to addresses in the federal database. Most did not return our calls and those who did declined to comment.

Data obtained by Spotlight PA show neighboring states like New Jersey and West Virginia have similar discrepancies between state and federal records. Unlike Pennsylvania, however, those states have procedures in place for remediating or disclosing meth-related incidents.

In New Jersey, a State Police spokesperson told Spotlight PA the agency reports incidents to the county or township health department, which then revokes the certificate of occupancy until the site is remediated by a private contractor.

In West Virginia, local or state law enforcement notifies both the property owner and the state Department of Health and Human Resources, which oversees the cleanup of home drug labs through its Clandestine Drug Lab Remediation Program. In addition to tracking whether homes included in the state’s public registry have been remediated or demolished, the department also certifies contractors to do this work.

‘I wish our state would regulate this’

Disaster Blaster, a Scranton-based restoration company, started offering meth remediation about six years ago after they received several requests for the service, said Matthew Lyons, the company’s president.

“We didn’t believe it was that big of a problem up here,” Lyons said. “I grew up here. I’ve lived in Northeast Pennsylvania most of my life. I never expected that we would have the issues here that we have.”

Meth remediation makes up less than 10% of Disaster Blaster’s projects. The company also handles asbestos abatement, mold remediation, and smoke and fire cleanup.

Both Disaster Blaster and the Florida-based Meth Lab Cleanup Company said their meth-related remediation clients generally are landlords or property managers who want to clean a property so it can be rented again, people who purchased bank-owned properties without knowing the full history of the home, and insurance companies.

The jobs are complex and take at least two weeks, Lyons said.

Items that are too difficult to clean, like carpets or appliances, must be discarded. Other hard surfaces like walls or floors get vacuumed and washed to remove contamination. If chemicals were dumped outside, soil and groundwater must also be tested. Sewer or septic systems can also be affected.

But the biggest challenge, Lyons and Mazucca said, is doing this work in a state like Pennsylvania that doesn’t have rules to determine when a property is clean. Both companies reference guidelines from states like Washington or Colorado, which set standards for measuring the presence of meth and chemicals associated with it, to help inform their processes.

Without clear standards, a contractor could end up at odds with a property owner, Lyons said. Some cleanup companies may not be properly trained to do this type of work, and some property owners might cut corners to save time or money.

“I wish our state would regulate this, because it would make the process simpler,” Lyons said.

‘We can’t always expect people to do the right thing’

Pennsylvania’s real estate seller disclosure law, which requires a seller to report the presence of hazardous chemicals on a property, could offer home buyers some protection.

Chemical residue from a meth lab would likely be reported under that category on disclosure forms, said Hank Lerner, chief legal officer with the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.

“We tend to prefer that the form not get overloaded with a bunch of duplicative questions, which we felt that this would be,” Lerner said, adding that anyone inclined to try and hide dangerous aspects of a home’s history probably wouldn’t be motivated by an additional question.

Lerner said adding a disclosure requirement without setting standards for safety or cleanliness could cause more confusion and leave sellers without a clear path to destigmatize a property.

“There’s no way to judge whether it’s all better now,” he said. “So drawing attention to the problem without also having a solution just makes it stand out a little more.”

For four consecutive legislative sessions since 2013, Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced bills that would require sellers and landlords to disclose former meth labs. They also set guidelines for decontaminating properties.

All of those bills stalled in committee.

State Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie) introduced one of those bills in September 2016 after a constituent found out her rental home previously contained a meth lab and she could not get out of the lease. Without any state laws requiring the home to be remediated or standards governing what it means for a home to be safe, the renter had no way of knowing whether her landlord had sufficiently cleaned the property.

“We can’t always expect people to do the right thing, and that’s why I crafted the legislation to give the renter the absolute out under those circumstances,” Sonney said.

State Police data show an 86% decrease in drug lab seizures from 2017 to 2021. During that same time period, the agency responded to 118 meth-related incidents in Erie County — the most of any county in the state, according to data obtained by Spotlight PA. There were 71 meth-related incidents during that same time period in neighboring Crawford County.

“I think it’s probably happening more than we think,” Sonney said, “and unfortunately the residents don’t even know it.”

90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.

Copyright 2022 90.5 WESA

Jamie Martines | Spotlight PA