Indiana families living in toxic homes due to enforcement breakdown
PART II - Indiana families living in toxic homes due to enforcement breakdown
PART I - Indiana families living in toxic homes due to enforcement breakdown
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — A 4-month Eyewitness News investigation finds thousands of Indiana drug houses have not been quarantined and cleaned – as required by law – because local health departments and state agencies are failing to enforce regulations meant to keep Hoosiers safe. As a result, unsuspecting families across Indiana are now living in toxic homes that are supposed to be sitting empty.
Jenny and James Boggs learned about the state's broken enforcement system firsthand, after they purchased a home in Jennings County.
"We always wanted to own our own place, and that's why we jumped on it," said Jenny, who moved into the 3-bedroom trailer near North Vernon in 2011.
"It had a nice yard and plenty of room for the kids," explained her husband, James. "It looked OK to us. We didn't see anything wrong with it."
But soon after the couple moved in with their five young children, Jenny began getting terrible headaches. James and the kids developed serious breathing problems – sometimes requiring extended treatment at Columbus Regional Hospital. They also developed rashes and skin problems.
"Me and the kids were getting sick all the time," James said. "I had no breathing problems until we moved into that trailer."
The Boggs family had no idea their new home had recently been used to manufacture methamphetamine.
Indiana State Police raided the property exactly five months before the family moved in. According to an official ISP Methamphetamine Laboratory Occurrence Report, investigators found meth making materials – including corrosive acid, flammable solvents, lithium/ammonia reactions and a hydrochloric acid gas generator – throughout the trailer.
After the bust, Indiana State Police say they followed state law by quickly sending the occurrence report to both the Jennings County Health Department and the local fire department. That should have triggered a detailed process to ensure no one bought, sold or lived in the toxic home until it was thoroughly cleaned. But that process never happened. Local and state officials ignored protocol – and state law – that should have protected the Boggs family's investment and their health.
It's a common breakdown 13 Investigates discovered in every corner of the state.
An Eyewitness News analysis of state records found nearly 3,000 Indiana meth houses have no cleanup certificate filed with the Indiana State Department of Environmental Management. Yet across Indiana, 13 Investigates discovered Hoosiers living in many of those former meth labs, putting countless families at risk.
"Never goes away"
To understand just how serious that risk can be, you first need to understand why meth is so dangerous.
Methamphetamine (more commonly known as meth, ice, crystal or one of several other street names) is a powerful stimulant made from a toxic cocktail of common, over-the-counter ingredients such as cold medications. The drug, which can easily be made in small, clandestine laboratories, provides an intense, euphoric high that is highly addictive. While the euphoric feeling is fleeting, the manufacturing or "cooking" process leaves behind a toxic residue that can last for decades.
"It adheres. It penetrates. It sticks to everything," explained Ryan Weaver, a certified remediation specialist who cleans homes contaminated by meth. "I've seen houses that were busted four or five years ago that still test very high, off the charts. It's not like cigarette smoke that dissipates over time. [Meth residue] never goes away. It will always be there unless it's removed."
That's why Weaver and state police investigators wear special breathing masks and full bio-hazard gear when they enter a known meth lab. And it's why Indiana lawmakers declared a war on meth more than a decade ago, passing Indiana's Methamphetamine Protection Act in 2005.
The comprehensive law requires state agencies to better track and report on meth labs, and it requires ISP to notify local health departments each time they make a bust. The law also mandated the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to create rules that ensure toxic properties will be cleaned up.
IDEM adopted those regulations, known as Indiana Administrative Code 318, in 2007. IAC 318 requires a property contaminated by meth be cleaned up before anyone can live there, and a meth house cannot be sold, rented or used in any way until it has been properly cleaned and tested by a professional contractor certified by the state.
"We have a process in place. Title 318 outlines exactly what needs to be done once a [meth lab] residence is identified," said ISP Sgt. Mike Toles, who helps oversee Indiana's decade-old, statewide Meth Suppression Program. "The process is in place for a reason: to protect Hoosiers. It spells out what should be occurring, and that needs to be done."
In some communities, the process works well and state law is enforced every day. In other communities, regulations are ignored.
Inspectors "don't have the time"
Brodie Cook has a determined look on his face as he places a large sticker on the window of a Muncie meth house. The sticker reads "Warning! DO NOT ENTER. This dwelling deemed UNFIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION by order of the Delaware County Health Officer." It also warns that "failure to comply is a criminal offense."
"We have to do this. [Meth] is a huge problem for our county, and we have to respond to it," said Cook, the Delaware County Health Department's environmental health inspector.
State Police have busted 184 meth labs in Delaware County since 2006. More than half of those have already been cleaned up. The rest of them – 78 properties – are now tagged, clearly marked by the county health department as "unfit for human habitation."
"If they haven't been cleaned, occupying these properties is both unsafe and illegal," Cook told WTHR last week, standing outside a vacant meth home.
In other Indiana counties, that level of enforcement is rare. 13 Investigates found many counties have a very spotty track record when it comes to quarantining and cleaning up meth labs. Even more troubling, some counties have no track record at all.
It explains why James and Jenny Boggs thought they were buying a home when, in reality, they purchased a meth lab.
"That house was supposed to be tagged and marked uninhabitable, so how were you allowed to buy that property in the first place?" WTHR asked.
"We never figured that out," said Jenny. "The health department never gave us any answers, and never once did they say it was a meth lab in there. You'd have to ask them."
So we did. WTHR met with Kevin Dougherty, who serves as the environmental health inspector at the Jennings County Health Department.
13 Investigates: "When it comes to these meth homes, the law says they're not supposed to be inhabited until they're cleaned up."
13 Investigates: "They haven't been cleaned up."
13 Investigates: "And there are folks living in them."
13 Investigates: "Why is that?"
Dougherty: "I do not have time to go out and tag every one of those. 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."
Dougherty spends most of his time inspecting restaurants to ensure food safety in Jennings County, but he is also responsible for enforcing the cleanup of meth homes. He took on his role at the county health department about a year ago – well after the Boggs family purchased and moved into a contaminated meth house in 2011. Dougherty told WTHR he does not know what, if anything, his predecessors did to quarantine and clean up meth labs.
"I don't know what they did. I don't what they didn't do," the health inspector told WTHR. "I don't know for certain that they didn't hang the [quarantine] tags. I don't know that they did."
Asked if his health department has any records to show when a meth house in Jennings County is quarantined, cleaned up or deemed safe for re-occupancy, Dougherty replied without hesitation.
"No," he said. "I'm doing what I can to fix it. It's just going to take some time."
But when it comes to unsecured meth labs, time can be dangerous.
Another family falls victim
Frustrated by constant illness and an inability to get answers from the health department, last year the Boggs family decided to walk away from their contaminated home in Jennings County – losing more than $26,000 in equity they had put into the trailer.
"We just left everything behind. We did it for the kids," James said. "We didn't just lose the $26,000. We lost the furniture. We lost the appliances. We lost everything."
Now living in Kentucky, the Boggs family says nearly all of the health problems they developed while living in their toxic trailer home have disappeared.
But the saga continues.
Just a few months after James and Jenny relinquished possession of the property and moved out, Harold and Carria Decker and their four children purchased and moved into the same trailer – which still had no quarantine tag or cleanup order issued by the county health department.
And now the Deckers are also experiencing skin rashes and other health problems commonly associated with exposure to meth residue.
"It's on my arms, my back, my stomach, all over," said Carria, pointing to red dots now covering much of her body. "Never had it before… not until we moved here."
"We didn't know it was involved in any kind of drug activity whatsoever," said Harold.
"If you had known that, would you have bought it?" WTHR asked.
"Oh, no! Of course not," he replied.
Informed that two families have experienced health problems after living in the same former meth home, Dougherty said he is concerned there could still be toxic residue left throughout the trailer.
"Absolutely, I do [have concerns]. We have those meth labs and kids are crawling across the carpet. It's just a huge problem."
Nearly 3,000 toxic homes
The problem is not happening only in Jennings County.
13 Investigates analyzed databases and incident reports maintained by Indiana State Police and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to find Indiana meth labs that have not yet been properly cleaned. WTHR's analysis shows at least 2,904 residences busted by ISP for being clandestine meth labs do not yet have a clean-up certificate on file with IDEM.
Dozens of Indiana counties have only a few clean-ups listed in IDEM's records. While others, such as Crawford, Martin, Parke and Scott counties, do not have a single meth lab clean-up on file with the state. IDEM regulations require proof of methamphetamine remediation be submitted to IDEM and each appropriate local health department before a meth lab can be re-occupied.
WTHR spent months visiting properties on the state police clandestine laboratory list and found many of the meth homes are occupied – despite a state law that says no one can live there until they are properly cleaned. 13 Investigates found the residents living inside are almost always unaware of the potential danger.
In Rockville, Brad Wilcox lives in a former meth home with his wife and two young sons. He told WTHR there was nothing posted by the Parke County Health Department to show the attached garage on his home had been busted as an operational meth lab in 2011. The health department could not find records of any meth-related clean-ups in Parke County dating back to 2006. Health inspector Liddy Dowd-Wright told Eyewitness News she is not aware the Wilcox house was ever busted, even though Indiana State Police records show an occurrence report was sent to the Parke County Health Department in fall 2011.
"I have no knowledge of that," she said. "There is nothing in my file. I think it's really more of a legal issue than a health issue … but if you've got information, if you have a list of properties, we're more than willing to take a look at it."
In Austin, Teresa White told WTHR she had heard that her rented house used to be a meth lab, but she had no idea the Scott County home where she now lives with her husband, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren is not included on the state's list of certified cleaned properties.
"The landlord let us move in, so I just assumed it was cleaned," White said about the rear bedroom that had been used to manufacture meth in 2012. "If it hasn't been cleaned up, we got no notice, no warning, no nothing."
That does not surprise the county health department.
"To be honest with you, I don't think there have been any remediations in our county," said Tim Brunner, Scott County's environmental health inspector. "We don't keep that information in our files, and it's difficult for me to know when people are living in those houses. After about a year, it's off the radar."
In Loogootee, Vicki Mullen and her son live in a home where the basement and garage were used to make meth before state police busted the lab in 2014. She knew the person who lived in the home was arrested for selling methamphetamine, but Mullen did not know the Martin County home was used to manufacture the toxic drug.
"You mean no one's supposed to live here?" she asked when WTHR spoke to her on the front porch. "Wow. I didn't know it was a meth lab."
WTHR has waited six weeks for Martin County to provide evidence of any quarantine notices, clean-up orders or remediation certificates to show that the county's meth labs have been addressed by the county health department, as required by state statute.
To date, the county's health nurse has not located any of those records. Nor has anyone else.
"I tried to find them, but if there is such a thing in this department, I am unaware of it, and I don't think anyone else knows about it either," explained Colonel Child, a contractor hired by Martin County to inspect septic tanks. "If that's something we're supposed to be doing, I suppose this doesn't look good and it doesn't sound very good, does it?"
Nightmare for health inspectors
It's not only homes that are affected. Across the state, 13 Investigates found apartment buildings, senior condominiums, hotels and offices that are also occupied – despite being former meth labs that, according to IDEM records, have not yet been cleaned and tested to show they are safe.
How can there be such a gaping hole? Why in many places are regulations meant to protect Hoosiers simply not being enforced?
Nearly all of the health inspectors WTHR spoke to in rural Indiana counties echoed the same thing we heard in Jennings County: they simply don't have the time or resources to enforce the state's methamphetamine regulations that are intended to keep unsuspecting families out of toxic meth houses.
"It's been a nightmare. I just don't have the manpower," said Larry Beard, a longtime environmental health inspector in Vermillion County.
Beard does what many environmental health specialists in rural counties do: everything.
He inspects all of the restaurants in Vermillion County. He also inspects the gas stations. He is responsible for septic tank inspections. And if any other environmental health issues are called in to the county health department, Beard handles those, too.
And because the inspector position is only part-time, he has to do all of that in 20 hours per week.
WTHR asked Beard if it's possible for him to also keep an eye on meth houses to make sure they get cleaned up.
"No, and that's the bottom line. I've got too many other things to do," he said.
WTHR: "So is that why we see what we're seeing? Right now there are a lot of houses in your county that are still listed as having been a meth lab that are not cleaned up."
WTHR: "Why is that?"
Beard: "Well, the owners … they were never going to do anything with them, so they just sat."
WTHR: "So they're just sitting there."
Beard: "They're just sitting there."
WTHR: "Not cleaned up."
Beard "Not cleaned up."
WTHR: "People living in them."
WTHR: "How do you know that?"
Beard: "Well, when I periodically travel through the county, I mean, there's nobody there at that particular time."
WTHR: "That's interesting, because when we drive around and we went to a bunch of these places, looks like there's people living in almost every one them."
Beard: "In Vermillion County?"
Beard: "Hmm. Unbeknownst to me."
Visiting more toxic homes
WTHR visited more than a dozen former meth labs in Vermillion County that have no clean-up certificates on file.
At some of the homes, no one answered the door. But lights turned on inside the residences, a package sitting on a front porch, smoke coming out of chimneys, dogs barking inside some of the houses and a cat curled up inside a front window suggested most of the former meth labs are currently occupied.
At other residences, we spoke directly with the owners or tenants.
The man living in apartment #225 at the Clinton Chateau apartment complex in Clinton told Eyewitness News he was unaware that his unit had been raided by police in 2013, yielding meth ingredients in the bedroom, living room and kitchen. Neither the local health department nor IDEM have any record that the apartment was properly cleaned.
And nearby on Morgan Street, Paul Uselman confirmed he started renting his house in 2012, just a few months after investigators found meth-making materials in the basement and bedroom.
"When you came out here, was there a notice from the health department that no one should move in here?" WTHR asked.
"No, never," he replied.
The 70-year-old Navy veteran said he called the Vermillion County Health Department to ask what he should do with leftover drug paraphernalia he found inside.
"They said it was my responsibility," Uselman told 13 Investigates. "So I took out four totes full of meth-making crap. Just me and my nephew. We scrubbed down the walls ourselves. Around this town, they don't clean up like they're supposed to. There's houses like this all over town."
WTHR took our findings to Indiana State Police.
State police angry, disappointed
"I find that troubling," said ISP Sgt. Mike Toles, after clenching his jaw, sighing, shaking his head and pausing for 40 seconds to find the right words. "It's very disappointing and troubling."
As north zone supervisor for ISP's Meth Suppression Section, Toles has helped oversee a program responsible for identifying more than 13,000 Indiana meth labs in the past decade alone.
After each bust, he says an ISP Meth Suppression Section department secretary in Indianapolis follows state regulation by sending a Clandestine Lab Occurrence Report to each county health department. That is supposed to trigger the next part of the process in which local health inspectors tag the home and keep people out until there's a proper cleanup. Toles has been under the impression local health departments have been doing that for a long time. So scenes like the ones 13 Investigates discovered in Vermillion and Jennings counties came as quite a surprise at ISP headquarters.
"Now we have unsuspecting victims living in those homes. That defeats the purpose of the measures we've taken along the way," Toles told WTHR. He is especially discouraged to hear that children are being exposed to meth residues, and that residents are being left to clean out contaminated properties on their own.
"There's a reason we wear protective gear when we go into these labs. They are dangerous and if you're not protected, you have no business being in there. That's a huge problem," he said.
Toles was also angry to see the notification letter the Jennings County Health Department is now sending to property owners of some former meth labs.
The letter, obtained by 13 Investigates, notifies the owners that their property is listed on the ISP database of clandestine meth labs and the listing "could affect the property's resale potential." It later mentions that living in the property can be very harmful to your health, as well as instructions on how to remove the property from the ISP meth lab list "if you wish."
The letter is a far cry from what is required under Indiana law. It does not clearly state that no one can live inside the property until there is proof from a certified remediation specialist that it has been tested and found to be safe. It does not inform the property owner that the residence cannot be sold or rented until it is cleaned up. It does reflect that cleaning a former meth lab is required under state law – not at the whim or discretion of the homeowner if he wants to improve the property's resale value.
"That's ridiculous. That makes me mad," Toles said, looking at the letter and shaking his head in disgust. "It all comes down to education. The regulations are clear on what should be happening."
It may sound pretty simple, but local health departments say keeping meth houses vacant until they're cleaned up isn't simple at all.
"Get off your rear … and do your job!"
Many of the health inspectors WTHR spoke with do not believe they have the power to enforce Indiana's meth lab clean-up regulations.
"I'll tell you right now, I don't think I have the authority to do it," Beard told Eyewitness News at the Vermillion County Health Department.
He says local health departments are mandated to carry out the law, but they're given no instructions on how to enforce it.
"The weak link is the enforcement part of it," Beard explained. "There's no one to back local health departments in this."
The health inspector in neighboring Parke County feels the same way.
"Owners are supposed to have their properties remediated and show us proof before they can rent it or have someone live in it, but if there are property owners not doing that, we really don't have any jurisdiction," said Dowd-Wright.
It's a common complaint heard among local health inspectors in rural counties, but it may not be accurate.
At the same time that IDEM regulations require local health departments to take action to quarantine meth labs, state law gives them the authority to do so. But the law can be confusing. It makes quarantining a meth lab optional, something local health departments "may" do if they choose.
And while state law also stipulates penalties for those who disobey a quarantine order by a local health department (allowing someone to live in a meth house that has not been cleaned by order of a health department is a Class B misdemeanor that can result in fines and attorney fees for each day of the violation), local health inspectors say they are hard pressed to pursue those sanctions without extensive intervention, time and expense from their county board and attorneys.
"I understand where they're coming from," said Brodie Cook, the Delaware County health inspector who aggressively enforces meth lab clean-up regulations in his county. "The way the law is written, the enforcement element is pretty confusing and there are definitely some holes there." He said his county chooses to combine state laws with local ordinances to strengthen its enforcement capabilities.
Even if local health departments do understand their legal authority to tag and require clean-up of meth homes, they say they don't always get timely notification after a residential meth lab is busted.
"Often I don't hear about it unless I read about it in the newspaper," Beard said.
And local inspectors say the limited resources facing many of their health departments makes enforcement unlikely, if not impossible. According to Beard, it is unrealistic for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to ask small health departments to police such a big problem.
"If enough IDEM and state health officials get off their rear ends in Indy, away from their desks, come over and give us some help, we'll gladly take it," he said. "Get off your rear, get over here and do your job!"
State agencies not enforcing either
Neither the state health department nor IDEM was aware that people are living in uncleaned meth labs across Indiana due to a breakdown in the enforcement of state regulations.
Both agencies declined WTHR's request for an interview, referring us back to local health departments -- the same departments that are struggling to follow the state's mandate.
"Since authority for cleanup and ensuring dwellings are safe rests with local health departments, ISDH is not the appropriate agency to discuss these efforts," wrote Indiana State Department of Health public affairs director Jeni O'Malley.
IDEM public information officer Barry Snead acknowledged the lack of local resources does play a significant role in statewide enforcement.
"There's definitely a difference in vigilance between counties. Many times, because of funding and personnel, things fall through the cracks. There's not the manpower or the funding to keep up with that," he said.
Asked for reaction to WTHR's investigation, Snead added "Technically, those properties should stay condemned until they are cleaned up. What you're describing would definitely be a concern, but I don't think we have authority to do anything. I think that lies with the local health departments."
But according to state law, IDEM and the Indiana Department of Health do have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that toxic meth homes are not forgotten and left to make families sick.
State law gives both agencies final authority to intervene and to issue both a clean-up abatement order and a quarantine order if local health departments cannot or will not do that job.
IDEM's authority comes from its ability to issue what's referred to as a Commissioner's Order to make sure a property owner cleans up a meth-contaminated property. 13 Investigates has learned the state agency has not filed a single Commissioner's Order in the past decade to force compliance with the state's meth lab clean-up regulations – despite acknowledging that many health departments have too few resources to enforce the rules on their own.
IDEM is now taking a closer look at the problem exposed by Eyewitness News.
"We are meeting internally and with other state agency representative to review IDEM's role," explained external relations director Ryan Clem.
It is not clear whether the Indiana State Health Department will also review its role which, according to the department's own website, is supposed to include staff consultations and technical assistance to local health departments.
In the meantime, families across the state are caught in the middle of a system that isn't working.
"It's just not right," said Harold Decker. "Someone should do what they're supposed to… I don't want my family to get sick."
"I think it comes down to education, and it looks like we might need to send individual investigators out to re-educate some people," said Toles. "We've been taking proactive measures since 2005 to protect Hoosiers from meth and it looks like we still have kids being exposed who don't need to be …It's a village problem. It's everyone's problem, whether we want to admit it or not, so we need to figure this out."
How to avoid buying or renting a meth lab
Indiana State Police maintains a comprehensive list of clandestine methamphetamine labs that have been busted across the state. The interactive map allows users to look at all meth lab occurrence reports in a specific county or community.
It is a valuable first step for anyone looking to purchase or rent a property, because it includes thousands of properties that have not yet been cleaned. Remediated homes are removed (or never appear) on the ISP website and are included on a separate list of Certified Cleaned Properties that is maintained by IDEM.
But WTHR's investigation found the state's lists contain significant errors.
Data entered into the ISP database often does not match information found on individual clandestine lab occurrence reports. WTHR found that street names, house numbers, cities and counties are often incorrect, making it difficult to check on specific property.
ISP's clandestine labs website includes more than 180 properties on the Certified Cleaned Properties list that, according to state police policy, should not be included.
And across the state, 13 Investigates found residential meth labs that have been demolished are still listed online by ISP, suggesting a communication breakdown between some local health departments and the state agency.
Website users should also know the ISP website lists residential addresses at which meth activity may have been discovered only in a ditch or other remote location away from a home. Those properties are listed right alongside properties in which meth was manufactured in a kitchen, bedroom and living room.
For that reason, WTHR has created a separate interactive map that eliminates meth properties that have already been cleaned and for which meth-related items were found only in remote locations away from any structures.