Charities face costly meth lab cleanups

ARLINGTON – Chemicals used to make methamphetamine discovered at two nonprofit organizations in Arlington have left both facing costly cleanups.

Tests show meth chemicals contaminated an apartment building owned by Compass Health and the Helping Hands thrift store, officials said.

Both will need to be cleaned by state-certified contractors and pass state health tests before reopening.

A cleanup can cost thousands of dollars, but neither agency knows how much they will have to pay or when they’ll be able to open their doors again.

“Compass Health and the thrift shop have really stepped up,” said Jonelle Fenton-Wallace, an environmental health specialist with the Snohomish Health District. “They’re really going above and beyond to ensure both are safe.”

A meth lab caused a small explosion Dec. 21 at the Compass Health complex, which serves low-income residents. The lab contaminated the unit where the explosion occurred, Fenton-Wallace said.

“We also found low-level methamphetamine present in other areas of the building,” including the laundry room and office, she said.

The explosion started a small fire that set off fire sprinklers, and contaminated water dripped into the apartment below, Fenton-Wallace said.

The lab was apparently vented into the attic, which spread contamination throughout the building, she said.

A 20-year-old man has been charged with making meth there and causing the explosion. He had been living in his mother’s apartment since summer, according to court documents.

She has been evicted from the building, said Terry Clark, director of development services for Compass Health.

Two other tenants who lived in the building have not been able to return since the explosion, she said. Both are living with family members during the cleanup.

“We’re in the process of finding out what we need to do and getting the right people to do it,” Clark said.

“This isn’t the last time we’re going to have to deal with this,” she added. “We’ve been lucky we haven’t dealt with it before.”

Just two blocks away from the Compass Health apartments, the Arlington Community Food Bank’s Helping Hands thrift store also has a meth mess. Chemicals used to make the illegal drug were discovered in the thrift shop’s basement, which was not being used by the thrift shop, volunteers said. The food bank is in a separate building.

State health tests found contamination in the basement. Police say someone broke into the cellar by prying off the padlock. Officers found evidence that at least one person had been living there. No arrests have been made.

Tests also have detected the presence of meth in the shop upstairs, Fenton-Wallace said.

“It’s very low and below the state standard, but we did some further sampling to pinpoint where it’s at and to rule out any areas,” she said.

Results of the tests are expected next week.

The thrift store provides low-cost clothing and donates the money it earns to area charities, said Shirley Cochinella, who has volunteered there for 22 years

“Everybody’s desperate for it to open up,” she said. “People are looking for warm clothes right now, and it’s a bad time to be down.”

The building is owned by the city of Arlington. State law requires property owners to pay for cleaning up meth labs regardless of who is at fault. The city does not know yet if its insurance company will pay for the cleanup, assistant city administrator Kristin Banfield said.

Reporter Katherine Schiffner: 425-339-3436 or

Signs of meth activity

Making methamphetamine requires cooking a highly toxic stew of ingredients that can poison nearby wells and render the labs (typically houses, trailers or vehicles) uninhabitable without expensive cleanup.

Some signs of meth activity include:

* Discarded packaging of ingredients used to cook meth, including cold medicine, stove fuel, paint thinner and chemicals from feed stores or pool supply companies.

* Discarded beakers, test tubes and glass containers.

* Excessive amounts of unusual garbage.

The state Department of Ecology warns people to watch out for items used to make the drug, including:

* Propane tanks or pressurized cylinders; ammonia; containers of acetone, toluene and Coleman fuel; starter-fluid spray cans; shredded lithium batteries; Red Devil drain cleaner; and empty cold-medicine containers.

* Some items, such as propane tanks, look harmless but can have valves that could fail and spray ammonia gas or hydrogen-chloride gas, which can damage the eyes and lungs.

* Anyone who comes across meth-lab waste should leave the area immediately and call police.

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