'Speed Kills'... Profits!The story of self-storage and clandestine methamphetamine labs

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'Speed Kills'... Profits!The story of self-storage and clandestine methamphetamine labs

By Angela Kiper

Earlier this year, the following voice mail was left on our office phone:

This is Detective Jim Smith from Clandestine Meth Lab Unit. I wanted to advise you of a hazardous situation that we have neutralized out at your self-storage facility in Phoenix. We had information that a couple of suspects were storing chemicals and equipment, and possibly manufacturing methamphetamines and dangerous drugs in your lockers. We served two search warrants and did, in fact, find a clandestine lab in one of your lockers that has substantial contamination inside.

We removed a lot of chemicals and equipment that were hauled away by a professional impact and environmental-disposal company, but there was quite a bit of hazardous chemicals and equipment in the lockers. And there is substantial contamination. I'm advising you that, as the owner of the property, you have certain liabilities to be concerned with. You're going to need to have clean-up people come out to assess the contamination and repair or replace whatever is contaminated; and you are not allowed to re-rent those locations until they have been certified as being healthy and decontaminated. It's Wednesday afternoon at about 5:15, and we got your phone number off the City business-permit records. If you need any other information, please call me back and I'll be glad to explain the situation.

We knew from the call that we had a problem to address--one that would probably involve the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), Phoenix Police Department, Maricopa County Department of Health and possibly other agencies. What we didn't know was how to handle it.

What Is a Clandestine Lab?

A clandestine laboratory is one used for the primary purpose of illicitly (illegally) manufacturing controlled substances, such as cocaine and methamphetamine (meth). Clandestine labs are typically small, utilizing common household appliances, glassware and readily available chemicals. While some clandestine laboratories may be located in industrial areas, they are most frequently located in residential areas, and are increasingly showing up in self-storage facilities. Self-storage facilities are particularly dangerous for this activity due to the lack of proper ventilation and temperature controls that add to the potential for fire, explosion and exposure to humans.

There are many different methods for producing methamphetamine. Each method has its own inherent dangers. Many of the chemicals used are caustic or corrosive, and some of the processes create noxious and harmful fumes. Additionally, many of the chemicals can be found in common household items such as lantern fuel, cleaners, acetone, muriatic acid, diet pills, cold capsules, Drano, road flares, matchbook cover-strike pads, iodine, Red Devil lye, etc. Clandestine laboratories present numerous hazards to people and the environment. Extreme potential for fires, explosions, and exposure to hazardous chemicals and fumes are but a few of the dangers.

What Part Is Hazardous Waste?

The most dangerous chemicals typically encountered in meth production are hydriodic acid and red phosphorous. Red phosphorous is found in fireworks, road flares and bombs. Hydriodic acid is used as a commercial disinfectant and is corrosive enough to bore through concrete.

Both of these substances emanate toxic gases. When red phosphorus burns, it generates a toxic smoke containing phosphoric acid. If this smoke is inhaled, the acid will chemically burn the victim's airways and lungs, often resulting in chemical pneumonia. In addition, red phosphorus will transform into white phosphorous when a spark or flame is present, which may auto-ignite several times if it continues to have contact with air or water. Friction can ignite deposits of red phosphorous left on equipment or the surrounding area. If individuals dismantle equipment, the red phosphorous residue may not only spark, but also ignite gases remaining in the reaction vessel, intensifying the problem. Exposure to or inhalation of either chemical can cause respiratory damage, chemical burns and death.

The danger of chemical fires and explosions extends beyond meth manufacturing. In addition, traces of red phosphorous will likely remain on discarded materials and equipment, presenting a flammable hazard for three to four decades. Depending on the extent of the contamination, and whether the area affected is a structure, soil or water, costs can range from thousands of dollars for the initial cleanup to hundreds of thousands of dollars to remediate a water supply.

Just as legitimate industries generate secondary services, clandestine lab-site "oil barons" support and profit from the manufacture of meth. After producing the finished product, clandestine lab workers are typically left with five to six pounds of hazardous waste for each pound of finished meth produced. This waste is often disposed of by these "oil barons." They are paid $2,000 or more to discard the waste, which can end up in your onsite dumpsters or in your units. Renting a unit for the storage of toxic waste can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars profit for the "oil baron."

When, in the second phase of production, the clandestine-lab cook separates red phosphorous from the mixture, lab workers often use bed sheets or pillow cases as filters. When left in a dump site, this fabric holds large traces of red phosphorous and hydriodic acid, which will become an environmental threat for years. Simply an attempt to unearth or clean up the site can create enough friction to ignite the red phosphorous, causing chemical fires. Some of the waste commonly found in a clandestine lab that become hazardous include freon cans, compressed gas cylinders, discarded clothing, shoes, gloves, respiratory mask filters and dust masks, and pillow cases/bed sheets.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Once our problem was revealed to us, we had many questions and no readily available answers. We searched for the answers through consultations with the police detective, our attorneys, the property managers and other experts in the field.

Question 1: Should we evict the tenants for violating the terms of the Crime Free Addendum of their storage agreement?

Since the tenants were in jail, weren't getting out soon and were late in rent payment, eviction was inevitable.

Question 2: Are the two units and all their contents considered a hazardous-waste site? Is the whole facility considered a hazardous-waste site?

Clandestine labs are considered hazardous-waste sites by both the federal and state government and should only be entered by trained and equipped professionals. Anyone finding a clandestine laboratory should leave it alone and immediately contact local law enforcement.

In his phone message, the officer said that one of the lockers had "substantial contamination" and the two lockers must be decontaminated and certified "healthy." Therefore, we concluded that only the two units were "hazardous-waste sites" and not the entire facility.

Question 3: The two units, aside from being used as a meth lab and waste-disposal facility, contained many household items, including a dismantled car. Should we dispose of the tenants' possessions? If so, how should we dispose of them? Through public auction? In the dumpster?

If we sold the possessions at auction, we could be legally liable for any contamination or damages to the successful bidder. There were just too many items that might contain residual contamination from the clandestine laboratory operations. Clothing especially easily absorbs chemicals. If we disposed of the possessions ourselves, we might be violating laws and risking contamination of the garbage cans, dumpsters, landfills, etc., used for the disposal.

Hiring a federally certified hazardous-waste disposal firm would be an extremely expensive endeavor because it would need to hire certified technicians clothed in special hazardous-materials handling uniforms, and would be required to properly dispose of all the contents in each unit into a federally approved hazardous-waste dump before it would clean up the units.

Question 4: Should we allow the tenants (or their family and roommates) to remove the contents from their units, even if the contents may be hazardous?

After discussions with legal counsel, we decided that the most cost-effective and legal way to remove the possessions was to convince the co-tenants (who were not arrested) to remove the possessions from both units themselves. The onsite managers called the co-tenants in hopes they would voluntarily remove the remaining possessions from the units. The managers didn't get much cooperation from the co-tenants at first; they were probably hesitant to return to the units out of fear that they, too, would be arrested on the spot when they showed up.

We drafted a letter for the co-tenants' signature, which advised them that chemicals/contamination may still be present on the personal property, that they were to remove the items at their own risk, and that they assumed any liability for the removal. It took a few weeks to complete the task, but the co-tenants finally removed all the stored possessions out of the units.

Question 5: Were we required to inform the other tenants of the hazardous conditions in that building? In the whole facility?

The detective advised us that we shouldn't re-rent the units until they had been certified as being healthy and decontaminated. The police posted a bright-red notice on each of the two units that read:

A clandestine laboratory for the manufacture of illegal drugs and/or hazardous chemicals was seized at this location on 3/3/99. Known hazardous chemicals have been disposed of pursuant to law. However, there still may be hazardous substance or waste products on this property either in the building or in the ground itself. Please exercise caution while on these premises. U.S. Department of Justice, DEA, 664-5600.

Most of the dangerous chemicals were removed by the police. All that remained was a small amount of residue which, although volatile, wasn't likely to affect any other units or other buildings at the facility. We concluded that no other tenant notification was necessary (aside from the notices posted by the police) unless the interior walls needed to be removed during remediation.

Question 6: What would testing and clean-up operations entail, and who would be allowed to conduct the operations?

Even when law enforcement is able to arrest and prosecute the individuals involved with a meth lab, the often staggering cost of removing the containers, contaminated apparatus and obvious waste is only a part of the total clean-up and remediation cost. Law enforcement is often burdened by the initial clean-up cost, while property owners, environmental agencies, health departments and, ultimately, the tax payers are burdened by the larger remediation costs.

General clean-up of a clandestine meth lab location involves two phases: gross clean-up and remediation. The gross clean-up involves law enforcement officials physically removing the materials that pose immediate and significant health hazards. This would include the removal of any waste products that are considered toxic (i.e., corrosive, ignitable or reactive in nature). Glassware, jars of chemicals and any finished product are usually included in the gross clean-up phase.

During remediation, hazardous-material firms remove and dispose of all hazardous waste remaining from the gross clean-up phase and return the property into a habitable state. However, the costs can be substantial. In a storage facility, for example, clean-up may range from washing the walls to removing/replacing drywall, as well as the wood or metal-stud framing. Because explosions sometimes accompany/cause chemical spills, the cleanup may require the demolition of an entire building.

If the soil is contaminated, it also must be decontaminated or removed to prevent seepage, which can cause a chemical fire. If the problem poses an immediate hazard to public safety and the property owner is unable to pay the remediation costs, funding for the clean-up will come from the "Superfund," a financial account that local, state and federal agencies can access to rectify such situations.

It is a Class 3 felony in Arizona for anyone to treat, store, transport or dispose of hazardous waste without appropriate authority. We discovered several licensed firms in the yellow pages under the heading "Waste Disposal--Hazardous." We also asked the police for recommended "hazardous cleanup" companies. Luckily, our property managers were able to find an acceptable firm.

Question 7: What agencies, if any, must we report our clean-up efforts to?

If the amount of hazardous substance found was a "reportable quantity" we would be required to obtain a letter report documenting the cleanup and disposal activities for submittal to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, upon request. The report would need to include a complete evaluation of field activities and all waste transportation and disposal documentation. Certificates of Destruction would also be forwarded upon receipt, if necessary.

Violations of the "reportable quantities" laws can be as high as $25,000 per each day of the violation under Arizona law. Federal law can be at least as strict. Luckily, we did not have a reportable quantity of a hazardous substance (such as red phosphorus, one pound) or an extremely hazardous substance (such as sodium hydroxide, 1,000 pounds). The environmental assessment company that completed the environmental-site investigation concluded that the storage units presented no hazard to human health or the environment.

Question 8: Would our insurance cover any losses?

We reviewed our insurance coverage, including general-liability policies, business-interruption policies and property-damage policies for coverage of the costs of remediation of on-site contamination. None of our policies covered this situation. Our insurance agent informed us of a hazardous contents removal policy we could purchase for future coverage. Although the policy limits of $25,000 per "insured location" seemed reasonable, the policy contained so many exclusions that we determined the annual premium of $1,028 was not worthwhile.

Conclusions

In all, the two units used as a clandestine meth lab and waste-storage facility were relatively inexpensive to clean up. We were lucky. The Drug Enforcement Agency claims the current average cost of a per-unit cleanup is approximately $4,400, and it can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

Our total hard costs were only $3,300 for both units, which included attorney fees, the Registered Hazardous Substances Professional Contract Consultant fees and lost rents. Unfortunately, however, the soft costs (i.e., the lost rents from prospects and other current "legitimate" renters who may have seen the bright warning notices posted by the police and decided that maybe our facility wasn't safe enough for them or their possessions) were impossible to calculate.

As drug traffickers demonstrate their ability to sustain small-scale clandestine laboratory operations, the amount of hazardous waste generated will continue to cause serious environmental damage and pose immediate and long-term health risks to individuals. Meanwhile, those labs discovered will cost law enforcement, taxpayers, property owners and environmental-protection agencies millions of dollars annually.

Self-storage facilities are quickly becoming, and will continue to be, common areas for clandestine laboratory sites for a couple of reasons:

  • These areas minimize contact with law-enforcement officials. Law-enforcement surveillance of these sites is, at best, a difficult task requiring extensive man hours and overt surveillance techniques.
  • The often unmonitored areas provide for easy production of the drug and disposal of the toxic waste into the onsite dumpsters or in another unit.

So far, large-scale methamphetamine production has remained limited to the Western portions of the United States. But the detrimental impacts of the methamphetamine production process and the resulting waste "disposal" practices are beginning to be felt throughout the United States.

Currently, California is the number-one producer of clandestine meth labs, followed closely by Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona and Utah. However, as distribution moves eastward, production will also follow. As the drug organizations consolidate their hold on this emerging and very lucrative market, expansion into the Midwestern and Eastern regions of the United States may soon become a huge problem, and vulnerable self-storage facilities will become toxic-waste sites.

Recommendations

Although the erection of clandestine meth labs may not be easily halted, these operations can be displaced. If you are apathetic, negligent or just plain lazy, you will be targeted as "easy" and word will get around to the meth cookers in your area. Before long, your property won't be worth the land it's built on. But if you are alert, aware and take the proper precautions listed below, the meth cookers will move on to the next facility and contaminate it (or blow it up) instead.

  • Ask questions. Find out why tenants chose your facility over others in the area.
  • Follow your gut. If you get the feeling a potential client is acting suspicious, ask yourself if the benefits of renting to this person will outweigh the risks.
  • Check identification.
  • Fingerprint.
  • Use a "Crime-Free Addendum" as part of all your contracts and require the signatures, positive ID and license-plate numbers not only of the tenants, but also of all people to whom they want to give gate or unit access.
  • Talk to your local law-enforcement authorities and offer to assist with their canine training by allowing them access to your facilities. We let potential tenants know that we allow the police to train drug-sniffing dogs on our property.
  • Learn to recognize possible methamphetamine users. They normally appear nervous and sometimes irritable, often sweating from the brow. Their movements may be somewhat jerky. They may appear acutely alert or anxious. They have dilated pupils and their eyes tend to rapidly track even slight movements. They may grind their teeth (if they have any left, due to poor nutrition and incessant grinding) or pick at or scratch their skin to the bleeding point (look for scabs). They have a tendency to talk incessantly and appear overly confident. Look for burns on their fingers or fingernails starting to fall off. Many are young, but have rotting or missing teeth. Beware, however--it doesn't take much for a user's paranoia to take over. They can become quite violent at the drop of a hat, and may be armed.

Meth cooks often pay cash for their rental units. They may try to pay several months in advance. They may want two units back to back so they will have an escape route (i.e., in case the police come to one door, the meth cooks go through a hole they cut in the wall to the next unit and out the door on the other side of the building, thus increasing their chances of escape). They will probably ask for a unit or units in an isolated area of the facility. Or, they may insist on a unit with overly adequate ventilation so the smelly vapors from the cooking meth will disappear quicker. In the case of our facility, two units were rented by two different people, one for storage of the unused and used chemicals, and one for the actual manufacturing ("cooking") of the meth. Both units were at the back of the facility far away from the management office.

  • Check your traffic logs frequently. Is the tenant staying in the unit for an excessive amount of time (other than the move-in process)? Is the tenant keeping irregular hours? Does the tenant remain in the unit for four or more hours and then you notice an increase in traffic? (It takes as long as six to eight hours to complete the cooking process. Cookers often call their clients and sell right from the unit as soon as the cooking is complete.)
  • When making your rounds, glance inside any open units. Make particular note of stains on the concrete or drywall, unusual liquids (cloudy or unlabeled containers), etc.
  • Meth cooks may park their car away from the unit where they are working and in a position where it is hard to read the license plate number on the car.
  • Keep your eyes (and your nose) open to the possible clues that a meth lab might exist in one of your units. Read the list of clues below for more details.
  • If you suspect the existence of a methamphetamine laboratory on your site, call the police. Do not overlock the unit (it may be rigged) and do not confront the suspects yourself. Do not light a cigarette in the vicinity. Do not touch or move anything. Allow the proper authorities to handle the situation.

Clues to the Possible Existence of a Clandestine Meth Lab on Your Site

You may be unaware if there is a meth lab at your facility. Here are some things to look for:

  • Unusual, strong odors (like cat urine, ether, ammonia, acetone, vinegar or other chemicals).
  • Tenants who pay in cash. (Most drug dealers regularly use cash.)
  • Lots of traffic or people coming and going at unusual times. There may be little traffic during the day, but at night the activity increases dramatically.
  • Excessive trash, including large amounts of items such as antifreeze containers, lantern fuel cans, red chemically-stained coffee filters, drain cleaner and duct tape.
  • Unusual amounts of glass containers being brought into the unit.
  • Presence of the following items could indicate the existence of a meth lab:
  • Red Phosphorous
  • Alcohol
  • Starting Fluid
  • Toluene/Paint Thinner
  • Freon
  • White Gasoline
  • Camp Stove Fuel
  • Ether
  • Wooden Matches
  • Anhydrous Ammonia
  • "Heet"
  • Coleman Fuel
  • Phenyl-2-Propane
  • Benzene
  • Chloroform
  • Iodine Crystals
  • Black Iodine
  • Phenylacetone
  • Lye (Red Devil Lye)
  • DranoAcid
  • Road Flares
  • Muriatic/Hydrochloric
  • Epsom Salts
  • Sodium
  • Battery/Sulfuric Acid
  • Propane
  • Match Strikeplates
  • Phenylpropanolamine
  • Acetone
  • Diet Aids
  • Bronchodialators
  • Cylinders
  • Hot Plates
  • Boxes With Paper Towels
  • Cold Tablets
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Household Batteries/Lithium
  • Rock Salt
  • Energy Boosters
  • Ephedrine (over-the-counter)
  • Metal

Special thanks in the production of this article goes to:

  • Duncan B. Lingle, United States Drug Enforcement Agency, Phoenix Field Division Acting Group Supervisor, Arizona State Local Clandestine Lab Task Force Commander
  • Kevin Flood, United States Drug Enforcement Agency, Phoenix Field Division Senior Special Agent
  • Detective Jeff Reichert, Criminal Investigations, City of Mesa Police Department
  • United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
  • Koch Crime Institute, Topeka, Kan.
  • Gary Zwillinger, Attorney at Law, Morrison & Hecker, Phoenix

For more information, contact Angela Kiper, U-Stor Self Storage, c/o PCI Associates Ltd., 7100 E. Lincoln Dr., Suite C-134, Scottsdale, AZ 85253; phone (480) 990-0200.

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