Making a Living from Cleaning Up Meth Labs

Each week an average of 300 illegal methamphetamine labs are discovered across the nation. After police intervene, a dangerous mess remains. Patricia Murphy of member station KUOW reports on a woman who runs a business that cleans up that mess.

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From Coke to meth. Each week an average of around 300 laboratories designed to produce methamphetamines are discovered across the United States. And while local police and state authorities are usually first on the scene to begin cleanup, a private company must finish the job. The work is dangerous, but it can be lucrative. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Patricia Murphy profiles one woman whose made meth lab cleanup her business.

(Soundbite of job site activity)

PATRICIA MURPHY reporting:

Theresa Borst removes her face mask, unzips her blue haz-mat suit and is revealed: perfectly coifed hair, diamond stud earrings and freshly manicured nails. Her smile and throaty laugh dazzle just for a moment until the unmistakable smell of rotting food cuts through and sets the stage.

Ms. THERESA BORST: The freezers and the fridges have all leaked out onto the floor and there's fecal matter everywhere, and something has died in there, and there's fleas. Put it this way: It's respirator time.

MURPHY: Borst is standing in the doorway of an apartment building, hastily evacuated after one of the residents was discovered cooking methamphetamine. The occupants had to leave everything behind. It's Borst's job to clean it up. Her company, Bio-Clean, handles decontaminations and the meth lab cleanup business is booming. She handles around 50 labs a year.

Ms. BORST: We are just slammed. It's nothing to have 12 on the books going. They overlap. You know, right now I'm running a crew on the weekends just to keep--to try to play catchup and keep caught up.

MURPHY: Borst is well-paid for her trouble. She charges upwards of $15,000 to decontaminate a single apartment. A house can cost between 30 and $40,000. For now, a property owner's insurance policy covers most of the cost. The decontamination is necessary because of the chemicals used to make the drug: things like tallulie(ph), an ingredient used in paint thinners; methylene chloride used in solvents; and then the highly volatile anhydrous ammonia, which is often stored in propane tanks or even thermoses.

Ms. BORST: With just a quick jostle, that top's going to blow and put a plume of the gases in the air. The anhydrous ammonia--you'll be dead before you hit the ground.

MURPHY: Everything goes in the cleanup. Furniture and appliances are destroyed, destined for a designated spot at the landfill. Chemicals, propane tanks and HGL(ph) generators head to a moderate-risk waste facility. In addition to these dangerous materials, Borst and her employees deal with another hazard: unexpected visitors.

Ms. BORST: We went into one that we had to give a bid on, and the cooks were back cooking another batch. I said, `I'm sorry. I thought I was at Aunt Betty's.' You know, I was just like backing out going, `Oh, my God,' and I got to the road and I was calling the health department; they were calling the cops. That was probably my scariest.

MURPHY: All Bio-Clean's six employees have concealed weapons permits, and it's standard procedure at meth sites to dial 9-1 into their cell phones so all they have to do is press 1 and send in case of an emergency. Borst's company has been around since 1998, but she's only been cleaning up meth labs since 2000.

Ms. BORST: We were in blood-born pathogens, cleaning up after suicides, homicides, decomposed bodies, that type of stuff, and there just wasn't enough business.

MURPHY: Borst calls meth lab cleanup the best decision she's ever made. Still, she worries that this profitability may end, as insurance companies begin to balk at paying the bill.

Ms. BORST: And I think they're getting wise to it. I think they're just going to start writing exclusions for it. You know, and I can kind of understand their whole concept. These homeowners are running a business having a rental. And if somebody's cooking meth in their rental, obviously they're not running their business very well.

MURPHY: Some companies have started writing exclusions already. For now, though, most insurers evaluate meth cleanup claims on a case-by-case basis. For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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