Whatcom County changes cleanup threshold for meth use contamination

Whatcom County requires cleanup if tests show contamination levels from methamphetamine use at 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters and higher.

That new threshold began Jan. 10 when the county followed the state, which had raised its cleanup standards for meth labs to the 1.5 minimum.

Before that, state and county standards were at 0.1 microgram per 100 square centimeters and higher. That level was among the strictest in the nation.

The state health department regulates cleanup of meth labs. The county health department manages cleanup of places contaminated by meth because of illicit use, such as smoking the drug, for all of Whatcom County.

State and county officials have said the 0.1 microgram standard was set at the lowest level that could be detected through lab testing at the time of adoption. At the time, the idea was any level was too much and wasn’t based on an assessment of risks to people’s health, officials said.

They instead turned to the standard adopted by California after a 2009 study by that state’s Environmental Protection Agency determined that 1.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters was based on health risks that would protect the most vulnerable populations — pregnant women and young children.

County officials said they wanted to balance cleanup standards and public protection against the impact on property owners who must pay for costly cleanups.

Raising the threshold to 1.5 also would cost property owners less because they could clean to that level.

And it wouldn’t be so prohibitive for apartment complexes that share common areas and exhaust pipes to clean contaminated spaces, according to county health department officials.

Take the case of Kateri Court, on East Chestnut Street in Bellingham, where meth residue in 2014 had spread from one client smoking meth in one apartment to seven other units through a shared ventilation system.

Part of the cost of the $300,000 cleanup included replacing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

The highest contamination level was in the apartment where the tenant smoked meth, at about 7.4 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, according to the Whatcom County Health Department.

That apartment still would have been cleaned up under the new level, but the cross-contamination in the other units wouldn’t have hit the threshold for cleanup.

By comparison, the new standard wouldn’t have much affected the cleanup requirement for 19 rooms at the Aloha Motel and Villa Inn that were contaminated by meth use last year.

Just one of those rooms was below the 1.5 micrograms standard.

City leaders and police have focused on the two motels as part of the effort to curb crime and illegal drug activity on Samish Way.