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Cleanup of Makeshift Methamphetamine Labs in Hotel Rooms Costly, Time-intensive;
Meth Labs Found in 1,789 Motel and Hotel Rooms Over the Past Five Years
By Cara Bailey, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 9, 2009 - Most people check into a motel hoping for a hot shower and a little shut eye in a comfortable, clean room.

But some guests have sinister motives.

Police in the Charleston area say they are finding motel rooms -- they raided at least six in 2008 alone -- that have been turned into makeshift methamphetamine labs.

The drug -- a noxious mix of household chemicals and over-the-counter medicines -- leaves vapors and residue on everything it touches: fabrics, carpet, paneling and drywall.

It can even get into a building's ventilation system, officials say.

That makes it particularly troubling when authorities find the clandestine labs set up right next to a room belonging to a weary traveler.

And the cleanup for motel owners is costly and time-intensive.

Charleston Police Sgt. Tony Payne, an officer with the Kanawha Valley Metro Drug Unit, said out of the 30 meth labs his unit uncovered last year, one-fifth of them were operated in motel rooms.

Just last month, four people were arrested after authorities broke up a meth lab at the Econo Lodge in Nitro.

Often drug makers set up shop in motels, investigators say, because they have easy access in and out and they can avoid attracting authorities to their own homes.

But it's a highly dangerous situation for everyone involved, Payne said.

After they're tipped off to a lab, local police officers can't begin to do the cleanup job themselves. They must first contact the federal drug enforcement agency and special materials handlers have to arrive on scene to break down the drug lab and begin the decontamination process.

"You treat it as somewhat of a crime scene," Payne said.

Anyone on scene usually has to be outfitted in protective suits with special breathing equipment because the fumes are so toxic.

Drug-making equipment, materials and all contaminated items have to be transported to a secure disposal facility in Parkersburg, Payne said.

If the lab is located in an unincorporated area of the county, the proper procedure has been outlined by the Kanawha County Commission, which tightened its rules about the cleanup of a meth lab site in 2007.

A property owner has a certain amount of time to hire a decontamination contractor certified by the county to come in and clean up. The practice is expensive, running at least $1,500 for a small private residence.

If the property owner doesn't want to clean up the mess, they must hire a contractor to demolish the structure. If they don't comply, the county has the option of razing the structure and placing a lien against the property, according to the Kanawha County meth ordinance first adopted in 2005.

The entire process is far more costly for a motel, said Charleston building commissioner Tony Harmon.

When his office is notified about a meth lab in the city, a crew is sent out to mark the site with an orange sign stating that the structure or room is unsafe for human habitation.

If that's in a motel, inspectors also will go to adjoining rooms and close them off as well.

"You don't know what went from one area to another and back and forth," Harmon said.

The owner of the property must have the room and surrounding areas tested for contamination, Harmon said.

It isn't until after those test results come back that the decontamination and cleaning can begin, officials said.

That process typically runs a motel owner anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 or more, Harmon said, depending on the extent of the contamination and the chemicals that were used.

"So many factors come into play as to what was actually in there and what chemicals were used that leave a residue," Harmon said.

Vapors can cling to draperies. Chemicals get under floorboards. Even certain types of tile are susceptible to holding in fumes.

More testing ensues after the cleanup and then the state Bureau of Public Health is asked to sign off on a certificate that the property meets health and safety standards.

That certificate must be given to building commission officials before the property can be deemed habitable again.

It's a lengthy process, and one that costs motel owners additional money in lost room charges.

If the property is ever sold, an owner must also disclose that a meth lab had been set up there.

A February report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that nationwide authorities uncovered clandestine meth labs in 1,789 motel and hotel rooms over the past five years.

The agency estimated the actual number of operating motel labs is much higher than those raided by police.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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