By BOB GIBBINS
TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — Some local officials and property owners agree that State Sen. Roger Ballenger’s proposal to require landlords to clean homes that housed methamphetamine labs is a step in the right direction.
However, they say the legislation may have some unanswered questions in its current form, and even the bill’s author has some doubt.
“I don’t know if this bill will pass in its present form, but I believe the right to rent a room, apartment or house and know that you are not staying in a structure that may have dangerous residues from a meth lab must be addressed at some level,” Ballenger said.
Senate Bill 1728 is the result of an interim study involving the Department of Environmental Quality concerning hazardous material remediation. Ballenger, D-Okmulgee, co-chairs the Senate’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
The bill is welcome news to law enforcement agencies like the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. Mark Woodward, the agency’s public information officer, said there is nothing currently on the books to prevent a landlord from renting a home without ever disclosing that a meth lab had been operating on the property.
“Our agency has been an outspoken supporter of such legislation for more than a decade,” Woodward said. “We receive inquiries from the public several times a month related to potential meth lab homes asking about the dangers and what they can do to make sure their family is safe.”
Assistant District Attorney David Pierce said the bill is a step in the right direction.
“Theoretically, it sounds like a good thing,” he said. “But there are some unanswered questions.”
Cherokee County Sheriff Norman Fisher said his deputies find far fewer meth labs in homes now than in previous years, but he likes the idea.
“I know it’s costly to clean up a lab site, but we need to do what we can to keep innocent people safe,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to get at least some of the money back from the person responsible.”
Woodward said this is a serious concern because the meth chemical residue left inside the home can cause severe health affects, especially on children.
“These chemicals can cause eye and skin irritation, breathing difficulties as well as long-term damage to internal organs,” he said. “People living in these homes may never know it was a meth lab causing the illness.”
Bill John Baker, a Tahlequah businessman who owns several rental properties, also has some questions about the proposal. Baker recalls notifying local law enforcement about a methamphetamine lab his maintenance worker found in one of his rental properties.
“He smelled it and we contacted law enforcement, and they said the renter had been cooking meth in there,” Baker said. “I called HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development]. I called the state and got a list of best practices [for cleaning up a meth lab].”
Baker said everything on the list was done, including ripping out the old carpet and putting in new, and washing down the inside of the house. He wanted assurances the property was again safe to rent.
“I learned there are no federal regulations or state regulations,” he said. “There’s nothing available to tell you that you did a good enough job [cleaning the property].”
Baker locked the property and eventually demolished it because he didn’t want to rent it to another person or family without a certification that it was suitable for habitation.
Woodward agreed no “certification” is available to property owners.
“That’s why it’s critical property owners keep all documentation showing that a company did test, remediate and re-test the property on completion,” he explained.
Ballenger said the biggest negative comment to date is the cost of the cleanup and who foots the bill. He said the current version of the legislation puts the burden on the property owners, but they are permitted to recover damages in court from the person committing the crime.
“I realize that landlords are at financial risk, but putting the lives and health of innocent unsuspecting renters at risk is not the answer, and that’s where we are now without this legislation or something similar,” Ballenger said.
“I think every responsible landlord in the country would do that [clean up a meth lab site on their property],” Baker said. “But we need a standard. I think we could accept it if there was something or someone who could say we did enough to make it safe.”