By Jared Ritz
Randy Christofferson had been a landlord for quite a while, and never had any problems before. By June of this year, five different renters had lived in the underground apartment behind his house during the seven years he owned it, and nothing so much as a peep was heard out of any of them including the couple who had moved in just a month before.
Three months later, Christofferson is tearing down the walls of the newly refinished apartment. As the cream-colored Sheetrock and solid wood hits the floor, he contemplates the possible dire straits ahead bankruptcy, foreclosure on his home, and thousands of dollars of debt.
The reason? His property had been used by a renter to house a methamphetamine lab.
As long as meth labs have been in the news and in our neighborhoods there have been landlords stuck with the bill for the cleanup. Havre has relatively few labs when compared to other areas of Montana, but the cost absorbed by the landlord is no different.
A major reason removal of a meth lab is such a complex issue is that the process of cooking methamphetamine is extremely hazardous to the cookers, the building, and those nearby. The toxic chemicals released by the process are most notably phosphine gas, hydrochloric acid, and anhydrous ammonia. Despite what many cookers tell law enforcement, these gasses can kill. Extra safety measures must be taken to clean up. That process can be long and arduous and expensive.
Because of the dangerous nature of the cleanup, no local agency is permitted to do it. The Tri-Agency Task Force, which makes most drug-related arrests in the Havre area, is allowed only to remove evidence from the structure.
According to a Tri-Agency Task Force agent, after they arrest individuals suspected of making meth at a residence, all arrested and law enforcement personnel quickly clear the area. After the immediate police work is done, the agents put on hazardous material suits and collect what evidence they need.
They spend as little time in the "danger zone" as possible, because, the agent said, they know exactly how bad this stuff can be. They put the evidence, including all chemicals and chemical bottles, on a tarp outside of the residence. They collect samples of these items for evidence. Then the job is out of their hands.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration comes next and takes the materials on the tarp, and other contaminated items, to a hazardous waste disposal site. They remove all movable items that can be permeated with the hazardous gasses made by cooking, like upholstered furniture and blinds. The DEA cleanup cost is steep; a task force agent said that since Oct. 1, $890,000 has been spent to collect toxic materials in Montana.
After the law enforcement part of the equation is done, the problem is shifted to the party most directly affected the landlord.
The task force sends a letter to the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office, the Hill County sanitarian, and the owner of the property. The letter basically states that the property the suspected meth lab was discovered in is unusable, unrentable, and unenterable by law. In some Hill County cases, the contamination has been so severe that the building must be bulldozed, according to the task force.
The letter sent to the landlord gives the name of the local authority on public wellness the Hill County Health Department.
Clay Vincent, the Hill County sanitarian for 20 years, said the problem of meth labs and meth lab cleanup is a relatively new one. Lately, it has become major.
"It was like there were three of them, boom, boom, boom, right around here," Vincent said.
When the landlords of these properties come to him, Vincent tells them the steps needed to properly clean the property.
There are no official rules for cleanup, but a property that is red-tagged may not be sold or rented out again until the Health Department receives certification that the property has been sufficiently cleaned.
Vincent also gives them a list of 40 or 50 environmental consultant firms around Montana and Wyoming that deal with environmental damage of all kinds, from meth labs to underground gas leaks.
Vincent stresses that although effective, these environmental consultants are not cheap.
Randy Christofferson knows this all to well.
The door of the apartment he had been renting out for the past six years was broken down with three swift hits of a ram by task force agents on June 6. Police arrested two people during the raid, Leslie Felton, 29, and Shawn Kessler, 31, both of whom have pleaded guilty to the charge of operation of an unlawful clandestine laboratory. According to court documents, the agents stormed the apartment as Felton and Kessler were cooking a new batch.
Christofferson said he had no idea about their activities until he heard the sound of the apartment door being smashed at 11 p.m. that night.
Christofferson received his clerk and recorder letter a couple of days after that. One of his first concerns was being able to rent out the property again.
"I am not a rich man," he said. "I work two jobs just to make ends meet."
Monthly rent of $350 had been steadily coming in since he purchased the house, and when it was taken away it put a large dent in his family's income. Christofferson tried to remedy the problem as quick as he could.
At first, he thought he could just clean the apartment himself. After talking with Vincent, he found out his situation was a much tougher one.
Christofferson said he thinks the environmental consultant route isn't an option for him, simply because he cannot afford it. Some of the firms quoted him a price of $2,500 to $5,000 a day.
For landlords with many properties, the clean up and count your losses option may be feasible. Landlords who own many properties, or discover a meth lab in a multi-unit building can still collect rent while cleaning up the mess. Christofferson didn't have that option.
Christofferson said he now feels that his house and the separate apartment, which share the same lot, are worth squat. He came to that conclusion when a Havre Realtor told him she wouldn't sell his house because the land had housed a meth lab.
Christofferson reasoned that if meth labs around Havre and other communities were such a problem, some form of private or governmental assistance must be available for these unlucky landlords. He found none.
"They should have some kind of funding there ... some kind of help for people who get stuck with this," he said. "This whole deal just got dumped in my lap."
Christofferson said he was told that his insurance company would not cover the costs of cleaning up a meth lab.
Wally Duchscher, owner of the Duchscher Agency in Havre, said that doesn't surprise him. He said that the meth issue hasn't fully been addressed by the insurance industry as a whole, but the trend is to exclude meth labs from policies.
"Most companies don't have a firm policy, because meth labs are relatively new," he said. "Every day, more companies are making changes due to this."
Duchscher said the reason for the no-coverage attitude is two-fold. First, since meth labs are so new, there is no charge for them in the premiums that landlords pay. If insurance companies were to cover meth labs, he said, they would have to start charging higher premiums. Secondly, if the company pays for the cleanup and the next renter gets sick due to a sub-par cleaning, the insurance company may be liable.
Christofferson said he decided to let the mortgage company foreclose on the house. He didn't want to make payments on a property he thinks is worthless.
"I can't sell it, no real estate will handle it," he said. "I lost out $70,000 for the house as far as I'm concerned."
He is tearing down the apartment, piece by piece, and hopes his cleanup job will satisfy the mortgage company so he won't have to pay for an environmental cleanup process afterward.
Right now there is no government standards for determining when a property is acceptably clean. Legislation has been introduced to set some standards.
"The state needs to get going and give the city and the county standards for what is acceptable," Vincent said.
Christofferson said he also plans to sell his other rental property even though he has had no trouble with it. Knowing what could happen firsthand, he feels it isn't worth the risk.
He's also moving his family into another house while continuing to tear down the apartment.
"I gotta clean up that area so someone from the bank doesn't have some hazmat crew come in and stick me with the bill," he said.