The Whatcom County Council voted unanimously July 12 to pass a law that will require the cleanup and decontamination of drug manufacturing and storage sites. If property owners refuse to comply, they will receive civil penalties, fines, possible jail time and foreclosure on the house.
"The number one reason for passing the law is because we had no way to force the cleanup of the (methamphetamine) labs under the state law," councilwoman Barbara Brenner said. "Cleanup can cost from $10,000 to $30,000 and could probably go a lot higher."
Methamphetamine labs attract crime and transients, lower property values and look run down over time, said Jeff Hegedus, environmental health supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department.
Trespassing on abandoned sites is always a problem. Transients take up temporary residence and do drugs in them, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said. The majority of burglars and car prowlers are meth users who are stealing ingredients to make meth or to get money to support their habit.
The Whatcom County Sheriff's Office arrested a middle-aged man who was responsible for car prowls ranging from Glenhaven to Birch Bay, he said. While he was in custody, the number of car-prowl reports in the county dropped by 50 percent.
The Whatcom County Sheriff's Office identified 29 meth labs in 2004 that are larger operations involving multistate distribution, Elfo said. It identified 45 smaller meth labs in 2003, 14 in 2002, nine in 2001 and two in 2000.
At least three of the meth labs have been vacant for more than a year. One is in Birch Bay, another is in Paradise area near the Mt. Baker Highway and one is in Ferndale near Deer Creek, he said.
According to Washington state law, property owners are responsible for cleaning contaminated sites but the law does not set a time limit, which means property owners can board up and not deal with the houses for several years.
The abandoned meth lab in Ferndale has been boarded up for two years, Hegedus said.
"We plugged the hole in the state law by setting a time limit for the county law," he said.
According to the new county law, property owners will receive notification from law enforcement within one day after the health department declares the site as potentially contaminated.
Within 14 days of the notification, the Whatcom County Health Department will inspect the property, Hegedus said.
The property owner will have 45 days after the inspection to submit a cleanup plan and 90 days after that to complete it.
The county will pay for the cleanup if the property owner makes no attempt to clean the site.
If the owner does not reimburse the county, it will foreclose on the house and sell it at auction to get the money back, he said.
"We cannot tie up tax-payer money indefinitely by not being reimbursed," Brenner said.
Hegedus said foreclosure is a last resort, but the council passed an amendment to the law to make foreclosure a requirement of the law.
Meth labs put financial stress on the county and create a health hazard for residents. The Whatcom County health department spent $17,000 last year testing meth labs to be sure the houses were no longer contaminated after the cleanup process, Hegedus said.
Bellingham resident Bruce Siren, 68, spoke at the county council meeting to request that the new law will include all drug houses.
The Northwest Regional Drug Task Force raided a drug house in Siren's neighborhood near Squalicum High School. The task force told him residents distributed cocaine and heroin from the house, he said.
Hegedus said the new law applies to illegal drug manufacturing and storage sites in general, but law enforcement officers have only used it to force the cleanup of meth labs.
The task force's primary focus in dealing with meth is working with informants to get sufficient evidence to bust meth labs and places where people use heroin, which is closely associated with meth use, Elfo said.