Billings - The frames were broken on three doors, including the front door, which was held in place by screws. There was a black smear on the living room ceiling, but Randy and Nancy Baum ignored the oddities. In every other way, the little house on Billings' South Side seemed the perfect investment for the couple's retirement savings.
So last March the Baums bought the house on Jansma Avenue and started fixing it up. They replaced the broken doors, started cleaning and painting and did a few other projects while preparing the house to rent.
The work came to a sudden halt when, two weeks after they signed the papers, they met several young neighborhood children. The youngsters told the Baums an interesting story about their newly acquired property.
"The little kids said the SWAT team came and the bomb went off and nobody would let my dad go to work and they pointed guns and said to stay in the house," Nancy Baum recalled the children's story.
What the children were describing, Nancy Baum soon learned, was a raid conducted at the house in 2001 by the local police drug task force. The doors were broken because police smashed them open during the raid. The black smear on the ceiling was from a flash-bomb tossed through the broken door.
The previous owners of the house, Dene Galarneau and Tana Myhre, are serving time in federal prison for making methamphetamine at the house. Galarneau was sentenced to 12 years for drug conspiracy and firearms violations. Myhre got two years.
The Baums said they were shocked to learn that their house had been used as an illegal drug lab. They bought the house for $81,000 from the federal government through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A Billings real estate agent represented the federal agency in the sale of the foreclosed property, the Baums said. The real estate agent, whose Billings telephone numbers have since been disconnected, never mentioned anything about a drug lab, the Baums said.
"We never dreamed the house was a problem because you can't see it, you can't smell it," Nancy Baum said of the chemical residue often left behind when a drug lab is dismantled. "We didn't have a Realtor, and he was an agent of the government. What was his ethical and legal responsibility?"
The Baums say they have had little success getting that question answered. Only recently, after months of negotiations, did HUD agree to clean the house at the agency's expense. Nancy Baum said the house will be safe to occupy next month, nearly a year after they bought it.
The experience has taught the Baums plenty about the dangers of drug labs. A test paid for by HUD last month found dangerous levels of chemical contamination throughout the house and garage, the Baums said. The test was based on standards set in Washington state and showed nearly every room in the house was contaminated and posed a serious health risk. The test showed the garage contained about 600 times the amount of meth-related chemicals considered safe in Washington state.
"There shouldn't have been anybody inside that house without respiratory protection," Randy Baum said.
The Baums also learned that local and state governments in Montana do nothing to make sure former meth lab properties are safe to occupy before they are sold or rented.
"Shame on them for not caring, for not following up, for not taking the first step to protect people," Nancy Baum said.
The Baums say they were lucky; they don't have to live in the house. But they worry that others are unknowingly living in contaminated homes.
"What if it was a first-time home-buyer with no other choice?" she said.
Local officials acknowledge that there is no procedure to ensure drug lab properties are safe once police remove the lab equipment and chemicals. Potentially hazardous amounts of red phosphorous, muriatic acid, ammonia, acetone and other chemicals are often left behind.
"We are doing absolutely nothing," said Ted Kylander, director of environmental health for the Yellowstone City-County Health Department. "We are doing nothing because we never get called, and we have never had any staff training to allow us to go into those places."
Drug agents and others responsible for investigating, dismantling and removing meth labs take many precautions, including the use of protective suits and breathing equipment. The chemicals used to make meth are both toxic and flammable.
"When you think about the chemicals being used in a meth lab, and say some powder falls to the floor and doesn't get vacuumed up, it may be enough to kill an infant," said Billings police Sgt. T.J. Vladic, who supervises the local drug task force.
According to a report published last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, the remnants of meth labs pose an especially high risk to children.
"Chronic exposure to the chemicals typically used in meth manufacture may cause cancer; damage the brain, liver, kidney, spleen and immunologic system; and result in birth defects," according to the report.
Last week, state officials met in Helena to discuss health issues related to meth labs and establishing state standards for cleanup. At a subcommittee meeting of the Environmental Quality Council, officials warned that the state should only adopt cleanup standards if it is willing to pay the cost of enforcement.
At the meeting, Dr. Michael Spence, the state medical director, struck a dissenting note when he said he doubts that meth labs pose a serious public health risk. Spence said people were at a higher risk sitting in a smoky bar than in a home once used as a meth lab, according to a news report.
Vladic, of the Billings drug task force, said law enforcement's role in the cleanup of meth labs ends once the chemicals and other materials are removed. Certified letters are sent to the occupants, the owners and county officials informing them of the meth lab, he said, and a placard is placed on the property warning of possible contamination. The placards don't stay long, Vladic said.
"Sometimes they rip those off right away," he said.
Like the Baums, Vladic said he is worried that nothing is being done to protect the next occupants of a former meth lab property.
"We've got a hell of a problem here," he said. "The community and the administrative community needs to come together and come up with a plan on what to do with these properties. It's going to get worse unless everybody wakes up."
The Baums said they are especially upset that the letters sent by the drug task force to the county clerk and recorder's office are not filed with the property deed. At first, the couple said, they were told the letters are not filed because law enforcement does not pay the $6 filing fee. The letter would have warned them about the contaminated property, they said, before they bought it.
"Six bucks could have kept us out of this," Nancy Baum said.
Yellowstone County Clerk and Recorder Tony Nave said the letters from law enforcement are not filed with property deeds for several reasons. Local officials are debating whether the letters should be filed at all, he said.
"It's an issue we've been looking into," Nave said. "We're trying to determine whether it's appropriate."
In the past, the lack of the $6 filing fee was one reason the letters were not officially attached to a property deed, Nave said. The letters also were not in the correct format to become a document of record, he said, and officials are concerned about liability issues. Nave said he keeps the letters in a separate file in the office.
"It's a complicated and certainly emotional issue as well," he said.
It could get more complicated. In the last three years, drug labs have been found in at least seven Billings homes and apartments, according to local records. Across the state, the number of illegal drug labs has soared in recent years. Two drug labs were seized in Montana in 1998, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Last year, about 100 labs were busted.
Virginia Brown of Billings owns one of those former drug lab properties. Brown, 85, rents an attached apartment at her Jackson Street home for $400 a month. In January of last year, the local drug task force raided the apartment and arrested the 24-year-old man for operating a drug lab. Thomas Bateman was sentenced in October to 10 years at Montana State Prison.
At his sentencing, Bateman admitted he made methamphetamine in the apartment he rented from Brown. He also said an unreported fire in the kitchen was the result of his drug making activity. The fire caused extensive damage to the inside of the apartment.
Brown was surprised to learn of the fire and the drug lab. She said it cost nearly $7,000 to have the apartment cleaned and remodeled after police arrested Bateman and hauled away the drug lab.
"Thank God for insurance," she said.
Once the police left, Brown said, she was never told of any possible health risks associated with the illegal drug lab.
"They didn't say a word about that," she said. "They were hauling barrels out, but they didn't tell me not to go in there or handle stuff. I can't remember them ever giving me any instructions what to do. They just told me there was a meth lab."
Brown said she hopes that the remodeling work done to fix the fire damage was enough to clean the apartment of any chemicals left from the meth lab. She has since rented the apartment to another man, she said.
"I hope it's OK," she said. "I would feel terrible if I rented that place to somebody and they had problems because of the meth lab."
Jerry Jeffries also knows about meth labs. He is awaiting sentencing in District Court after pleading guilty to making meth in the crawl space under his home on Cook Avenue. He was arrested and charged after a drug task force raided his house in July.
Speaking outside his house recently, Jeffries said he started making the drug for his own use two years ago. He usually made a batch of meth about once a month, he said.
"I started because of all the money and garbage that goes with chasing it on the streets," the 45-year-old Jeffries said. "Anybody in a high school science class can do it."
Jeffries said he and his wife, who is also awaiting sentencing on drug charges, have lived in the home for 12 years and have remained there while the felony charges against them were pending. He is not concerned that the meth he made under the house is any kind of health risk.
"The chemicals, you can go right to the store and buy them," he said. "Everything is all sealed in air-tight containers in a vacuum. It's not like a dark cloud is going to come out. There's no problem."