Angry homeowners suing Indiana for allowing them to move into a meth house

Toxic Homes - Part I

Toxic Homes - Part II

Published: .
Updated: .

NORTH VERNON, Ind. — Across the state, Hoosier families are living in toxic homes that are supposed to be vacant. 13 Investigates highlighted the problem two months ago, exposing how state and local officials have failed to enforce an Indiana law meant to prevent unsuspecting families from moving into homes contaminated with methamphetamine. Now one of those families is fighting back.

The Davis family.

"I was just infuriated that we could even be in this situation where we're living in a potentially contaminated home," said Jennings County resident Adam Davis.

"It feels very scary," added his wife, Jen.

The Davis family just filed the first step in a class-action lawsuit against the state of Indiana and the Jennings County Health Department. They have notified state and local officials that they are being sued for an enforcement breakdown that has endangered the health and financial security of thousands of Hoosiers.

The tort claims notice was prompted by a letter the Davis family received in March – and seven years of missed opportunities that preceded it.

The letter

"We went to the mailbox like any other day and had a letter from the health department," recalled Adam. "And when I opened it up, I was just taken aback. I knew it had to be a mistake, or I thought someone was playing a joke on us."

It was no joke.

The letter from the Jennings County Health Department informed the Davis' that their North Vernon home is a former meth lab. Indiana State Police raided the house seven years ago, finding evidence of meth production in the kitchen and garage.

13 Investigates obtained ISP's Methamphetamine Laboratory Occurrence Report that details the raid in January 2010. It states ISP followed state law by quickly notifying the Jennings County Health Department about the meth lab found inside the house on Baker Street. At that point, state rules require a local health department to notify the property owner of the meth raid to ensure that the home is tested and, if necessary, properly cleaned before anyone is permitted to live there. A local health department is permitted to "tag" a meth house, marking it unfit for human habitation, to ensure testing and cleanup actually take place. Until it does, a home listed on the ISP Clandestine (Meth) Lab Registry is not allowed to be rented or sold.

But the Jennings County Health Department never sent a notification letter or tagged the property back in 2010 – or in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016. The Davis family bought the house in 2014, unaware that it might be contaminated with toxic meth residues that can make people very sick.

It was not until March 7, 2017 – eight days after WTHR aired an investigation showing a lack of enforcement by local health departments around Indiana – that officials at the Jennings County Health Department finally sent a notification to the "owner/occupant" of the Baker Street home.

The Davis' were told they had to test and clean the property and provide a cleanup certificate to show the property no longer presented a danger. The notification letter warned that "failure to comply with the [the law] could potentially cause your residence/property to be deemed uninhabitable" and the home cannot be sold until Adam and Jen could prove it was safe.

The young family suddenly found themselves in a potential health and financial crisis that, according to state law, should have been averted years before they ever purchased their house.

"It's scary. It's infuriating," Adam told WTHR, with his young son and infant daughter sitting on his lap. "It makes you scared for the safety of your kids and their health. You just feel helpless. We moved out right away while we could sort all this out."

Over the next two weeks, the Davis family hired a state-certified inspector to thoroughly test the house, then they nervously waited for the results.

Luckily, the results were negative, meaning any meth residues remaining inside the property were detected at levels that state regulators have determined to be safe.

Suing the state

"I just want them to do their jobs so other people don't get hurt"

The testing cost about $1,000. If inspectors had found higher levels of meth lingering in the home, the cleanup bill could have cost $10,000 to $20,000 more.

"This is something that could really potentially devastate someone's life or a family's life, so we felt it was our duty to try to do something to help all these other people who are in the same situation," Adam explained. "We were lucky. Other families are not, and this just shouldn't be happening."

Following the scare, facing a bill for testing their home, and dealing with the hassle of being displaced from their house for several weeks, the Davis' decided they wanted to send a clear message to state and local officials. That's why they initiated a lawsuit.

"I just want to see people do their jobs and make sure people are protected the way they're supposed to be," Adam told WTHR. "This isn't the money and it's nothing personal against anyone in particular. I just want them to do their jobs so other people don't get hurt."

He wants the local health department (which is supposed to enforce Indiana's meth cleanup law) and state agencies like the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Indiana State Department of Health (which helped create the law and can intervene in cases where local health departments are not properly enforcing it) to reimburse families that incurred costs due to negligent enforcement. The Davis' attorney believes local and state officials are legally liable for the costs.

"If the homeowners were never told about the problem but the government knew about the problem and failed to inform the homeowners, who should bear the liability for the expense: the government that had the information and failed to act on it, or the homeowners who never knew the information and are forced to pay the bill?" asked Richard Shevitz, the lead attorney in the proposed class-action lawsuit. "The homeowners should not have to foot this bill out of their own pocket. There can be no question that there's an utter failure and breakdown of the entire public health and safety system with regard to the methamphetamine laboratory reporting system."

State agencies do maintain registries that show properties that have been identified as meth houses and those that have been cleaned up, and those online registries are available to the public. Shevitz says the state takes little or no action to publicize the registries to help ensure that homeowners can utilize them when purchasing or renting a home.

Fixing the breakdown

WTHR's analysis of state records reveals nearly 3,000 former meth labs have no cleanup certificate on file, which means thousands of unsuspecting families across Indiana are being exposed – or have been exposed – to toxic chemicals.

Several local health inspectors told 13 Investigates either they don't know the meth cleanup law they are required to enforce or they don't have to time enforce it.

"I've got over a couple hundred right here to do what you want me to do -- go out and tag. I just don't have the time," Jennings County environmental specialist Kevin Dougherty told WTHR in February. "I've had this position a little over a year, and I don't know what [the inspectors before me] did. I don't know what they didn't do. All I know is it's a big problem and I'm doing what I can to fix it. It's just going to take some time."

Since WTHR first contacted the Jennings County Health Department in January, Dougherty has sent 57 notification letters to property owners whose homes are listed by ISP as former meth labs. The health department says several of those letters were returned as undeliverable. Other homes on the list had previously been torn down without notification to the health department. Eleven of the houses have been tested, and some, like the Davis', have come back OK.

"We got the letter and got the testing, and the levels are fine," said Carria Decker, whose North Vernon home is listed as a former meth lab. The testing showed meth residue still present in a bathroom, but within acceptable limits.

Tina Ferguson, whose family lives in a former meth lab about a mile away, told 13 Investigates her home passed testing, too. "They came and tested back in March and the results came back negative, so we were relieved," she said.

Both homes can now be removed from the state's meth lab registry.

Some homes still contaminated

But Jennings County Health Department office manager Peggy Roe confirms recent testing shows other homes in North Vernon remain contaminated with high levels of meth.

A home on Wentworth Place, for example, still exceeds safe levels 30 months after it was raided by police. Inspectors with full protective gear began the process of cleaning the home Saturday morning.

Over the past six weeks, health inspectors in Jennings County have been tagging houses that fail testing (and those that owners do not want to test) to keep people out and to prevent them from being sold or rented until inspectors can determine if they are safe.

It's actually a sign of progress as the health department responds to WTHR's investigation, fixing an enforcement program that has been neglected for years.

But families like the Davis' find themselves caught in the middle.

"If our home would have been tagged in the very beginning when it was busted, this never would have happened because it never could have been sold and would have had to be cleaned up," Adam said. "I just want to see things change to where more people are not in this situation."

"We'll do the best we can on behalf of the homeowners"

State and local agencies have 90 days to respond to the tort claims notice filed by the Davis family.

After that, the family can formally file its class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Indiana families who moved into a meth home that's never been tested or cleaned.

"We're looking forward to doing that and we'll do the best we can on behalf of the homeowners," Shevitz said.

Dodging questions

“I've directed all of my agency leaders to take a deeper dive into this”

The looming legal action adds additional incentive for the state to fix its broken enforcement system. State officials have now been talking about the problem for months.

A few days after WTHR's investigation, representatives from several state agencies and the governor's office met at the statehouse to discuss it.

"I've directed all of my agency leaders to take a deeper dive into this and make sure we're doing everything we can," Governor Holcomb told 13 Investigates.

But two months later, state agencies aren't saying much about what has come from their discussions.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has largely ignored repeated questions from WTHR.

More than seven weeks after Eyewitness News asked IDEM about the steps it will take to help correct enforcement lapses identified by 13 Investigates, the agency has yet to provide any explanation – offering instead only vague responses.

"Certainly roles for various agencies are being assessed moving forward," wrote IDEM communications director Ryan Clem.

The state agency has denied WTHR's repeated requests to speak with its methamphetamine lab cleanup expert, Lori Kyle Endris, who runs IDEM's qualified inspector drug lab cleanup program. IDEM's public information officer had agreed earlier this year to make Kyle Endris available for an on-camera interview, but he later withdrew that offer. Contacted by phone, Kyle Endris said she is not permitted to answer WTHR's questions.

"You do understand, I'm not allowed to talk to you, right?" she told 13 Investigates in March.

Nearly two years ago, Kyle Endris acknowledged she suspected Indiana families were living in meth homes that had not been properly inspected and cleaned.

"If you look at the numbers of properties versus the numbers that have been cleared by a qualified inspector, you're talking an 8,000 to 9,000 house difference, and I don't believe all of those are sitting empty," she told WTIU-TV in July 2015.

Unable to get answers to written questions or to schedule interviews with IDEM staff, WTHR recently approached IDEM's commissioner at a public meeting to get answers.

6 minutes. 0 solutions.

IDEM Commissioner Bruno PigottIDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott

"Why is this happening and more importantly, what is IDEM going to do about it?" WTHR asked IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott, seeking an explanation for the state's enforcement breakdown.

Like his agency staff, the commissioner provided little information:

"First of all, Bob, I want to say we care about the Hoosier families that are all over the state. We are working together with other agencies to gather information to share with the new administration that has been working on the overall opioid crisis and meth homes and all of these issues. As you know, it's one of the governor's five pillars to address the drug issues throughout the state, so we've been working together with other agencies to gather information for the new administration."

During the 6-minute interview, Pigott said four times that he cares about Hoosiers families. Four times he said IDEM is working with other state agencies and the governor's office to gather information. On five occasions he said IDEM is trying to "identify fixes" for the problems exposed months earlier by WTHR. But not once did the commissioner provide specifics about what IDEM will do to help ensure unsuspecting Hoosiers don't move into former meth lab still laced with toxic chemicals. He did, however, say local health departments have sufficient authority to handle the issue on their own.

"We believe the authority to address these meth homes currently exists at the local health departments," Pigott explained.

"But IDEM has known for a couple of years that it's not getting done on the local level," WTHR responded.

"Again, that's why we're working with the new administration to provide information to identify what potential administrative, legislative and other fixes might be appropriate," the commissioner replied. "But once again, it is under the authority of the local health departments, their ability to have the authority to address the issues."

Pigott's comments did not address the reality documented by WTHR: some Indiana health departments do not have the knowledge or the time to utilize their enforcement authority. Even if they do have authority to act, those health departments are doing little or nothing to help ensure toxic homes remain vacant until they are safe, putting thousands of families in potential danger.

IDEM can issue a Commissioner's Order to require the owner of a meth lab to clean the contaminated property. But even in cases where local health departments have failed for years to enforce the state's meth cleanup rules, IDEM has not intervened to take corrective action.

Beverly Gard, Chair of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management Environmental Rules BoardBeverly Gard, Chair of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management Environmental Rules Board

Taking action is now critical, according to the chairwoman of the state's environmental rules board, the government body that oversees the creation of administrative rules like Indiana's meth cleanup law. Chairwoman Beverly Gard said she watched WTHR's investigation and is very disturbed by the state's lack of enforcement.

"It's scary to think that families – particularly those with children – are living in that environment. It can have real long-term health effects," Gard said. "Obviously, it's a huge problem and it does need to be addressed. We just need to look at the quickest way to get it addressed."

Better training needed

The Indiana State Department of Health says it is also looking for fixes. While ISDH officials have not answered many of WTHR's questions and have not shared any specific plans, they did say they want to be better informed of meth lab activity throughout the state.

"As a result of internal discussions among several agencies, it became clear that ISDH has not historically received notice when meth is found at a property and is only notified once that property has been cleaned up… We are working with other agencies to remedy that situation so that we can better help our local health partners protect Hoosiers," wrote Jeni O'Malley, director of the ISDH office of public affairs.

A representative from Indiana State Police said the need for more training was one of the main issues discussed when state agencies met earlier this spring to discuss the problem at the statehouse.

"There was discussion by ISDH about providing additional training and guidance for county health departments on this topic. IDEM and ISP both volunteered to assist in providing instructors or curriculum for the training when it was planned," said ISP Lt. Niki Crawford, who attended the meeting at the governor's office.

The state health department told 13 Investigates it hosted an online meth cleanup training session for local health inspectors in late April. An ISDH spokesman said there is no way to track which health departments access the training and which do not, but education is available whenever it is needed.

"In addition to training for new environmental health staff, ISDH offers education and training anytime it's requested. We've taken steps to ensure that local health departments are aware of their duties under the law and that they know that ISDH can provide technical assistance to staff of any experience level. This has been done through regular public health communications with our local partners. We will continue to provide this education," O'Malley wrote.

ISDH has routinely offered trainings to local health departments in the past. Those trainings did not prevent a systemic breakdown in enforcement. ISDH has not explained what changes, if any, it will introduce in its training program to avoid similar results in the future.

13 Investigates has filed several requests under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act to get more information from state agencies regarding their meth cleanup enforcement activities.

This story will be updated when additional information is available.