Environmental concerns motivate drug-lab disposal specialists

In eight years of decontaminating homes and trailers used by methamphetamine “cooks” to make the illicit drug, Pamela Cash has amassed stories that would turn nearly anyone’s stomach.

With almost a decade of experience behind her, the work has become routine. But there was one job, on a property near the rural Whatcom County town of Kendall, that held a surprise even Cash wasn’t ready for.

Inside a house of filth—potent, lethal chemicals strewn through unkempt rooms, a backyard overtaken by garbage piled nearly five feet high—Cash found one item that made her want to bolt from the scene altogether: an open, empty cage that looked like it had recently held some sort of reptile. A large one.

“My immediate thought was: ‘They’ve got one of those giant snakes in here. I’m outta here,’” she said.

All in a day’s work for Cash, who is one of 55 people in Washington currently certified to clean drug labs, according to the state Department of Health. Cash is the only certified contractor located in Whatcom County who does the work, although the demand for cleanup takes her to job sites across the state.

Drug lab cleanup is a sort of side job for Cash, who has operated Roto-Rooter Plumbing Service in Bellingham for 29 years. She said she usually works on one cleanup job per month, sometimes more depending on demand.

After easier and cheaper methods to make synthetic meth were developed by clandestine cooks in the 1990s, its use spread rapidly. Today, law enforcement officials across the country still battle against the drug’s production.

Reports of drug labs and illegal dumping sites in Washington state peaked in 2001, a year when more than 1,800 sites were discovered across the state, according to the Washington Department of Ecology, which keeps such records. Ecology officials say nearly all reported sites involve meth production.

Whatcom County was the location of the less than one percent of the 11,407 drug sites discovered statewide between 1990 and 2009. The highest number found during that period was in Pierce County.

There were no sites reported in Whatcom County in 2010, the last year records were available.

Makeshift labs set up by meth cooks—most using over-the-counter medication containing pseudoephedrine along with common household chemicals and equipment—are obviously dangerous and illegal. When they are discovered, cleanup is a complex process involving an array of tests and workers in protective gear who comb sites removing anything that might contain residue.

The precautions are a necessity. Sites used to make meth can teem with dangerous acids, sodium hydroxide, flammable solvents, anhydrous ammonia, lithium and sodium metals, as well as red phosphorus. Labs can also contain debris such as pressurized cylinders and containers, chemically contaminated glassware and hypodermic needles.

When a lab is discovered in a house, apartment or other property, state health officials do not allow new occupancy until the site is cleared of contamination by a certified professional.

Cash said she entered the cleanup business in 2005, almost by accident.

At the time, her mother was managing rental homes in Bellingham, and after one of those properties was the site of a drug bust, law enforcement officials found evidence of an active meth lab.

Cash said her mother found a certified contractor to clean and decontaminate the house, paying $5,000 in advance for the job. Unfortunately, the contractor took the cash and ran.

“He took her money and did nothing,” she said.

So, to help her mother, and enter a new, potentially lucrative field, Cash went through the state’s certification process and did the job herself.

In Washington, the state’s health department handles certifications for professionals who clean drug labs. The state offers separate certifications for workers, supervisors, contractors and trainers.

Workers must complete a 40-hour course in hazardous waste handling, which are typically offered through private companies or junior colleges. Supervisors complete additional training.

For contractors, who are able to bid on and accept jobs, the health department requires them to be licensed, bonded and insured as a general contractor through the state’s Department of Labor & Industries. They also must employ at least two certified cleanup workers, and at least one of them has to also be certified as a supervisor.

Each certification level comes with licensing fees. Contractors pay $1,125 to start or renew a one-year certification.

Cash, who works with a hired crew, said a standard cleanup job begins with a evaluation of the site.

Many times state health officials have already tested the property and placed notices on the site indicating the presence of dangerous chemical contamination. But if that hasn’t happened yet, Cash will do the tests, herself.

It is only after a test comes back positive for contamination that she can place a bid on a job and begin cleaning. Costs are generally the property owners’ responsibility. Cash declined to say what she charges for her cleanup services.

Detailed paperwork is kept throughout the entire process, including a work plan that indicates what material will be removed from the site and where it will be disposed, as well as photos and test results. In order to prove to health officials that a property has been properly cleaned and decontaminated, documentation is extremely important, Cash said.

She said she usually tries to complete a job from start to finish in at least 45 days.

The saddest part of the work, she said, and one that is unfortunately common, is cleaning out children’s bedrooms.

“They’ve lost all their memories and belongings and photos and everything,” Cash said. “That’s the bad part.”

But despite such reminders of the darker side of illicit drug production, Cash said she enjoys the cleanup work. Not only does it let get her outside and offer new business opportunities for her company, but it also helps her feel she is making positive changes in local communities, she said.

“A lot of people probably don’t relish doing something like this, but I don’t know, I enjoy getting out there and solving problems,” Cash said. “We want the environment clean. We want the community in good shape.”

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com

This article ran in The Bellingham Business Journal’s July 2013 print edition as an installment of “The Dirt,” a monthly series about people who do “dirty” jobs Whatcom County. 

Evan Marczynski Photos | The Bellingham Business Journal

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