The Indianapolis Star by Dana Hunsinger  

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Inside a Crawfordsville rental property, the tenants liked to cook.

But what they were cooking got them busted last month, Indiana State Police say. In the kitchen, police found everything it took to make meth.

At the Days Inn in Anderson last week came a fiery explosion. Police say the same thing was cooking. But this time, it burst into flames.

Methamphetamine labs are more than just dangerous and illegal. They leave a mess — an environmental hazard that, according to state law, must be cleaned up.

And it takes a special process, certification and inspectors who scour the property in full-gear Hazmat suits and respirators to do the dirty work.

Welcome to the world of meth lab cleanup companies, a growing and profitable business, especially in Indiana, where certain pockets of the state are hotbeds for labs.

The state, which ranks in the top five for meth production, has 22 companies certified by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to decontaminate properties.

And business is, um, booming.

“It’s such a growing epidemic,” said Donetta Held, CEO of Crisis Cleaning, an Indiana company that has been hired to clean up the Crawfordsville home. “It’s everywhere — from a high-dollar house in Downtown Indianapolis to these rural counties.”

Held’s company has already done 25 meth cleanups this year, in less than three months. That’s already half as many as the company completed last year.

“Some people say there is not as much meth or meth has gone down,” Held said. “Um, no. I don’t see that at all.”

Neither do police, which have seen a steady growth in meth lab seizures in the past three years. In 2009, law enforcement shut down 1,364 labs. In 2010, 1,395 labs were seized. Last year, that number climbed to 1,437.

That has meant lots of revenue for meth cleanup companies. Most companies charge about $2 to $3 per square foot to do a cleanup. Depending on the size of the property and how many rooms need to be decontaminated, the cost can range from $5,000 to $10,000.

A dangerous recipe

Cooks using some pseudoephedrine, household chemicals and a plastic soda bottle can produce the drug.

This “one-pot” method can blow holes through walls and often start fires.

Police say that’s what happened at the Days Inn in Anderson, which marked the city’s 13th meth seizure of the year.

“This thing exploded, and this thing burned,” said Joel Sandefur, a detective with the Anderson Police Department. “There were still contaminants that were there. And those could have a residual effect.”

While specially trained law enforcement officers come in to conduct the initial cleanup, it’s up to the property owner to make sure the residual effects are removed.

Meth remains are toxic and can make inhabitants sick with serious respiratory illnesses if not cleaned. There can be continued headaches. It’s especially dangerous for children. Even dogs have been known to get sick.

That’s why, once a meth lab is found, property owners are required to show proof the site is free of contaminants before anyone is allowed to move back in.

At the Crawfordsville home, the owner turned to Held. According to the police report, there was a lithium/ammonia reaction, flammable solvents, water reactive metal (lithium), hydrochloric acid gas generator and corrosive acid.

Extensive cleanup

On Wednesday, inspector Rick Held went in to begin testing, the first step in a meth lab cleanup to see where the so-called “hot spots” are.

Most houses don’t need the entire residence decontaminated, just certain rooms or areas where levels of certain toxins exceed state law.

After that, a cleanup plan is crafted, and the inspectors go back in. Any porous materials, such as carpet, must be removed. Decontaminant is applied. When the cleanup is completed, another test is conducted to make sure the levels are down.

Once the property is down to acceptable levels, cleanup companies must give the property owner a “Certificate of Illegal Drug Cleanup.” It also must be given to the local health department, IDEM and the Indiana State Department of Health.

This document certifies to any new occupants that the meth lab contamination in the property has been cleaned up and it’s now safe to occupy.

“It’s amazing. It’s booming right now,” said Steve Stringfield, owner of Enviro-Sense in Fishers, which was started in 2007. “The money is there to make.”

Stringfield said he has already done three times the meth lab cleanups this year that he did in all of 2011.

So it’s no wonder the state has so many companies specializing in the business. But it’s not something just anyone can do.

Strict requirements
Indiana is a regulated state when it comes to meth lab cleanup. To be listed as a qualified inspector with IDEM, a company must complete an application and meet several requirements, including at least 40 hours of experience cleaning illegal drug labs or doing similar work. They must do several required trainings and pass an exam on illegal drug lab cleanup with a score of at least 80 percent.

Even after qualifying, the company isn’t done. Each year, IDEM conducts a required refresher training for qualified inspectors for free, which includes the state’s illegal drug lab cleanup rules, sampling and lab analysis procedures, waste disposal requirements and a presentation by the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Section on meth labs in Indiana.

When it comes to the law and the requirements on cleaning up meth labs, Indiana is a standout, said Joe Mazzuca, CEO of operations for Idaho-based American Meth Lab Cleanup, which operates nationwide.

He even suggests to other states that they take a look at Indiana.

On the other hand, he thinks this already thriving industry in the state could be thriving even more.

“We know of properties all over Indiana that people are still living in,” he said. “Indiana has, according to the data, a serious problem of clandestine drug labs. Whether they all are being addressed or not is the question.”

One reason: Many meth labs are tucked away in rural areas.

The Days Inn bust on a busy street in Anderson is a rarity, Sandefur said.

“There is a reason they go to the rural areas. There are not as many law enforcement officers in those small rural communities,” he said. “They just don’t have the manpower to address that issue.”

The top Indiana locations for meth lab busts are Bartholomew, Noble, Vanderburgh, Elkhart, Howard and Knox counties, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Register, kept by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Not surprisingly, you will find meth lab cleanup companies in out-of-the-way places such as Churubusco, Bloomfield, New Haven and Demotte.

They aren’t big outfits. Some have just one inspector, others just a handful.

“But we have a big job,” Held said.

Meth lab clean-up firms

These Indiana companies are certified to clean up meth labs in the state:

  • Aegis Environmental, Greenwood.
  • American Meth Lab Cleanup Company, Indianapolis.
  • Bio-Meth Management, Fort Wayne.
  • Concentra Environmental Health & Safety Services, Fort Wayne.
  • Crisis Cleaning, Bloomfield, Evansville and Fort Wayne.
  • Envirocorp, South Bend.
  • Environmental Remediation Services, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
  • Enviro-Sense, Fishers.
  • Evergreen AES, Newburgh.
  • Heartland Environmental Associates, South Bend.
  • Industrial & Environmental Services, Gary.
  • Innovative Environmental Services, Demotte.
  • K&E Environmental, New Albany.
  • Premium Environmental Services, Newburgh.
  • Protechs, Fort Wayne.
  • Quality Environmental Professionals, Indianapolis and South Bend.
  • SES Environmental, Fort Wayne.
  • Springfield Enterprises, Harlan.
  • Sunpro Environmental Services, Elkhart.
  • Talon Restoration & Cleaning, New Haven.
  • Three Rivers Environmental, Churubusco.
  • Trauma Technicians, Columbus.

Source: Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Follow Star reporter Dana Hunsinger Benbow on Twitter at twitter.com/IndyStarDana. Call her at (317) 444-6012.