A Snohomish County no trespassing sign hangs on a fence surrounding the Days Inn on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A Snohomish County no trespassing sign hangs on a fence surrounding the Days Inn on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Meth cleanup at Edmonds motel-shelter made matters worse, report says

Contamination has persisted at two motels Snohomish County bought to turn into shelters in 2022. In January, the county cut ties with two cleanup agencies.

EVERETT — Chalky cleaning residue still covered the motel floors in July, often in the shape of track marks and boot prints.

Debris and yellow wastewater lingered in the toilets, bathtubs and drains.

An inspector alleged decontamination workers had poured hazardous wastewater down toilet and tub drains.

Almost 18 months after discovering dangerous levels of methamphetamine residue in two motels the county planned to turn into emergency shelters, the contamination persists.

After workers cleaned one of the county-owned motels, a post-decontamination report showed drug levels had increased after cleaning — and contamination had spread to new areas.

The company tasked with the cleanup, Accurate Assessment Decon, disputed those findings.

Photos showed dust and soil covered most surfaces. The bathroom exhaust fans had internal dust and corrosion. Nearly every bathroom had water damage to the vanities and floors.

Following months of disagreements, the county terminated contracts in late January with the two companies hired to test and decontaminate the Days Inn in Everett and Americas Best Value Inn & Suites in Edmonds.

The county used $13.7 million in pandemic funding from the federal government to buy the motels in 2022. They were to be remodeled into what the county called “New Start Centers.” The motels would provide 74 units of temporary shelter and social services to homeless adults without requiring their sobriety, under a model known as “Housing First.”

The New Start Centers were expected to open about a year later. But as of this month, the buildings at 1602 SE Everett Mall Way and 22127 Highway 99 in Edmonds remained closed. Remodeling has not begun.

As of December, the county had spent about $723,000 on decontamination and testing, still within its budget.

Despite the challenges of the past year, Ken Klein, an executive director in the county executive’s office, said the project is still a better deal than building new centers.

“Buying properties, like hotels, and refurbishing them into bridge housing was certainly a less expensive way to go, and a faster way to go to get people housed,” he said. “Even with these longer timelines, and even with the potential additional costs.”

‘Contrary to the public interest’

Supporters said the motel purchases were a crucial step toward helping people find shelter, safety and recovery from addiction. Others were concerned about drug use and costs to renovate and operate the centers.

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed a rule requiring drug treatment for tenants to stay at the centers, but it failed 3-2 in a council vote.

The Days Inn surrounded by fencing on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Days Inn surrounded by fencing on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Despite the rhetoric of a few, there’s nothing effective nor compassionate about any efforts to delay necessary action,” County Executive Dave Somers said at the time.

But just before signing off on the purchases, the county discovered a problem: the motels were contaminated with methamphetamine. Tests showed meth levels as high as 35.5 times the state threshold of 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters.

The sellers knocked off about $1.6 million from the purchase price in response, bringing the price to $13.7 million by the time the deals went through in December 2022.

Kate Erickson / The Everett Herald
Source: Snohomish County

Kate Erickson / The Everett Herald Source: Snohomish County

About five months after buying the Edmonds motel, the county awarded a nearly $349,000 decontamination contract to Accurate Assessment Decon, one of 13 state-certified drug lab clean up companies. Around the same time, the company was also testing for contamination at Clare’s Place, a nonprofit permanent housing facility in Everett.

At that time, Accurate Assessment Decon had existed for nine months. CEO Craig Alger and other workers had parted ways with another drug cleanup company, Abatement and Decontamination Specialists. That company’s CEO, Sean Simmons, declined to comment on the separation. So did Alger.

The two companies filed competing bids to decontaminate the motels. In May, as required by state law, the county awarded the job to the lowest bidder, Accurate Assessment Decon. But Abatement and Decontamination Specialists already had a contract to test all county properties for drug contamination. This meant Simmons would test the motels after decontamination to ensure all levels were below the state standard.

To decontaminate a building like the Edmonds motel, workers typically remove objects and materials that are difficult to clean: personal items, air conditioners, exhaust fans, fabric and porous materials like wood. Workers then apply a meth-cleaning product, Crystal Clean, to all surfaces. Then workers use fresh water to rinse off the chemicals, extract the water with a wet vac and dry the building with carpet fans.

In June, Simmons inspected the Edmonds motel in preparation for post-decontamination sampling. His observations led him to believe the building was still contaminated, according to a 225-page report sent July 5 to the county facilities and fleet department. He donned protective gear — hooded coveralls, latex gloves sealed at the cuffs, a full-face respirator — and began documenting.

Initial concerns stemmed from his conversation with a security guard. According to Simmons’ report, workers had not briefed the guards on any work plan, hazard waste operations or health and safety plan. The guards were allowed to work, prepare food and eat inside the first floor of the building without written approval, despite the building marked “unfit for use” by the health department, according to the report.

Simmons documented conditions inside the building with more than 1,000 photographs.

Photos of the Edmonds site after decontamination efforts show dirty toilets, drains and floors, from an Abatement and Contamination Specialists report published July 2023. (Courtesy of Snohomish County)

Photos of the Edmonds site after decontamination efforts show dirty toilets, drains and floors, from an Abatement and Contamination Specialists report published July 2023. (Courtesy of Snohomish County)

Simmons wrote that he had reason to suspect the decontamination efforts were unsuccessful. He also recommended pH testing based on the corrosion he documented. His resounding concern was that it appeared Accurate Assessment Decon did not have an approved work plan or site-specific health and safety plan for the project, as required by state law.

“On the back of this inspection and report, my oft-repeated position is only further reinforced,” Simmons wrote. “The county must exercise its maximum agency and the full force of law. … Failure to do so is absolutely contrary to the public interest, public health and safety and public trust.”

‘Contamination appeared to increase’

On Oct. 4, Simmons published a 285-page sampling report for the Edmonds motel. Results processed in a lab in Moscow, Idaho, showed the building was not fully decontaminated, but instead had contamination in new areas of the building and higher contamination in some areas than before the decontamination process began.

Aran Enger, the county health department’s safe environments supervisor, confirmed the conditions in a letter to Lance Meinhold, project manager for the facilities department.

“The level of contamination appeared to increase following the cleanup activities,” Enger wrote Nov. 16. “In addition, it was also noted that the area of contamination had expanded to include the office, front desk and the lobby.”

A graph compares contamination test results at the Edmonds hotel, from an Abatement and Contamination Specialists report published Oct. 2023. (Courtesy of Snohomish County)

A graph compares contamination test results at the Edmonds hotel, from an Abatement and Contamination Specialists report published Oct. 2023. (Courtesy of Snohomish County)

Accurate Assessment Decon contested “every aspect” of the report, Alger said.

“We confidently stand by our quality of work,” he said earlier this month. “We disagree with any claims that we failed to live up to our contract requirements.”

When Alger’s team cleaned Clare’s Place in December and performed their own post-decontamination testing, results showed levels below the state standard. Catholic Community Services, the nonprofit that owns Clare’s Place, only had good things to say about the company.

“I know there’s bad blood between the two companies,” Steven Hernandez, the environmental health specialist for the county, said last week. “When I was on site with Sean everything was legit, same with Craig. I can’t really explain the discrepancy.”

Several theories arose regarding the post-decontamination outcome in Edmonds. Meinhold suggested to Alger’s team in an email that security guards could have tracked contaminants through the building.

Enger decided to verify the results with a third party. The county hired Bio Clean, another state drug lab clean up company, to sample five rooms and write a post-decontamination report for a nearly $10,000 contract.

The results of that report differed from Simmons’ in some categories — mainly the floors and walls — but overall confirmed the building had not been decontaminated. Most of the contamination remained within wood trim and the bathroom ventilation fans.

“Unpainted wood is more difficult to clean,” Alger said. “And the exhaust fans had not been cleaned because that was not in our required scope of work per the contract.”

The county extended Accurate Assessment Decon’s contract 30 days, and agreed to pay the company nearly $45,000 to complete further decontamination efforts.

When asked why the county extended the contract after Simmons’ report, Klein, the executive director of the county’s facilities and fleet department, said officials didn’t know who to believe.

“This is a new process for us,” Klein said earlier this month. “We aren’t experts in testing nor in decontamination of substances.”

‘The same issues’

Following results at the Edmonds motel, county officials recognized the project was behind schedule.

Officials had Alger’s team begin cleaning the Everett motel — a separate, nearly $296,000 contract — before finishing the Edmonds job. Email records show officials trying to get architects and engineers into the front of the building before decontamination of other areas was complete.

In November, Alger’s team finished cleaning the front areas of the Everett motel. County emails described conditions that resembled Edmonds: Dust and residue covered surfaces, the ceiling showed no signs of cleaning and some surfaces had not been removed per the contract.

“We assumed the same issues will be present,” read an email sent to Alger’s team in December. “In order to conserve time, effort, and expenses the sampling planned for yesterday was cancelled based on these visual observations.”

On Jan. 26, the county terminated its contracts with Accurate Assessment Decon, as well as Abatement and Decontamination Specialists.

“In this situation, it’s difficult to know where the issue lies,” Klein said. “It was better for us to try to find a different pathway, because we were concerned that we might be in an endless loop.”

The decontamination “has been a significant hurdle” for the county, officials told County Council members last week.

“I know the county was very frustrated with this process,” Alger said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they thought the best step forward was to get rid of both of us.”

The county has not barred either company from submitting work proposals in the future, county spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said.

Alger’s company made out with most of what was promised in the contracts — about $513,000 out of nearly $645,000.

Bioclean is set to finish the job, said Hernandez, the county environmental health specialist. Meanwhile, the human services department is working on hiring firms to operate the centers.

‘What we are and aren’t responsible for’

Federal and state guidelines for drug decontamination are an inconsistent patchwork of “lessons learned and practical experience of experts in the field,” according to federal Environmental Protection Agency documents. No federal law exists to support decontamination efforts; EPA guidelines on handling drug labs and contamination are voluntary and not enforced. And each state sets its own guidelines and regulations.

In Washington, local governments are responsible for overseeing property decontamination as needed. State law has clear instructions for handling drug labs, but contamination in buildings like the motels and Clare’s Place are a gray area.

“It’s confusing what we are and aren’t responsible for,” Hernandez said.

As it stands, private property owners largely test and report contamination to the health department at their discretion. And for county-owned property, no law exists requiring regular contamination testing.

Earlier this month, County Council member Nehring proposed an ordinance to require annual testing for contamination at all county-owned housing. The council is set to vote on the ordinance, backed by the county’s executive, human services and facilities departments, at a public hearing planned for March 20.

Ten years ago, federal funding poured into communities to combat the rise of meth labs. As in-house labs have shrunk due to cartel supply, so did government funding for oversight.

Because of this, drug lab clean up companies often perform initial assessments and post-decontamination testing on their own work. Or, in the rare case of Alger and Simmons, competing companies may test each others’ work.

And those in the field know how to test for desired results. Alger said he would support a state law barring companies from testing for their own decontamination jobs.

“If you consult with anyone whose been in this work for an extended period of time, they’ll know of contractors taking advantage of that opportunity,” Alger said.

Hernandez and two others at the county are in the process of becoming certified perform sampling for contamination testing.

“Technically the health department is supposed to do all the testing,” Hernandez said. “But we don’t have anyone.”

As of this week, there is no projected opening date for the New Start Centers.

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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