The Hard, Grim Work of Cleaning Up Meth Labs in West Virginia
Along with plenty of shady characters, the business offers a window into the changing drug habits of rural, white America.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted
Usually, when Jennifer McQuerrey Rhyne's truck pulls up to a property, it's the first time neighbors have seen any activity there in weeks.
Even though the decals on her hulking Tacoma read "www.wvmethcleanup.com"—literally spelling out why she is there—she becomes a magnet for anyone looking for information about the former proprietors of the meth cook sites she cleans for a living. Along with a bevy of shady characters, the business offers a window into the changing drug habits of rural, white America.
When I join her for a day on the job in December, Jennifer is standing outside a ground-floor apartment in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Though she hasn't suited up yet, her two associates, Heath Barnett and Joe MuQuerrey—her father—are already dressed head-to-toe in white chemical hazard suits, their faces buried in gas masks. They haul furniture from the apartment into the bed of Jennifer's truck. The door is ajar to reveal the checkerboard tile in the kitchen. Jennifer waits for the mother of the building owner to arrive with payment for the job.
A guy in a sweatpants and a hoodie tattered by cigarette burns approaches, mentioning the apartment's former tenant, a woman I'll call Rachel.
"She was into some bad stuff," he says. "She was advertising as an escort on a site called BackPages.com and was going all across the county."
Jennifer, 43 years old and about five feet tall with crimson-colored hair and a stud poking out of the upper right side of her lip, quietly absorbs the story. She's used to this. They come to her hoping to gather gossip, ease their worries, or collect debts.
"Over her time here, I loaned her over $1,000," the man says. "I heard she was at a rooming house in Bridgeport, but I was wondering if you knew anything."
"No, I don't know anything," Jennifer replies with a polite smile as she checks her phone.
"Well, I'd like to at least like to get my air mattress back," he says.
"I'm sorry but all this stuff has to go to the dump," Jennifer explains. "There's been a meth contamination here."
"Well, that figures," the guy says, wandering off.
It's because of encounters like this that Jennifer keeps a Ruger 380 in her truck. The gun usually stays there. Only once, in a run-down "apartment building full of tweakers" in Elkins, did she conceal it beneath her Hazmat-style suit as she cleaned.
This cook site in Clarksburg is a rarity in that it wasn't busted by the police. Rachel vanished and, after a rent check failed to materialize, the owner sent a maintenance man to check on her. He unlocked the door and found spoons and needles strewn across the living room and, in the basement, all the signs of amateur meth-making: salt, icepacks, Drano, and two-liter soda bottles with tubes sticking out of the tops.
"Once I called the police, they said to get out of there," the maintenance man, who declined to give his name, told me. "I started to get headaches and nausea."
It's not an uncommon scene in the Mountain State. Like rural populations all over the US, West Virginians are smoking a shit-ton of meth. Two years ago, 533 meth cook sites were uncovered in the state, though as of the end of November, 2014's numbers were down 40 percent, with just 290 reported busts compared to 500 at the same time a year earlier. Still, the drug is entrenched in this land of arch bridges and rolling hills, where the population density rarely reaches 500 people per square mile. Increasingly, West Virginia meth comes not from the makeshift labs of yore but a crude "shake and bake" process of packing cold medicine, anhydrous ammonia, water, and a reactive metal into a bottle to make a sludgy but effective product. It doesn't take Walter White to do this, and it makes it possible for a meth operation to be cloistered into a closet, a car trunk, or even a backpack.
No matter how large or small, once a cook site is busted, state law dictates it be " remediated" by a licensed company after police determine there is no immediate threat of an explosion. This has meant steady income for Jennifer's company, Affordable Clean Up, LLC, the only one in West Virginia dedicated solely to cleaning meth cook sites. (There are also general industrial cleaning companies that can be contracted for the job.) Since starting in 2012, they've cleaned about 20 sites a year. The average job rakes in $10,000, usually paid by a landlord or mortgage-holding bank.
This apartment in Clarksburg is netting Jennifer only a shade under four grand. She tested surfaces in each room with a kit and only three of them had enough meth residue to meet West Virginia's standard for contamination, 0.1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. Then she filed paperwork with the state Department of Health and Human Resources and awaited an OK to clean, a process that can take weeks, much to the annoyance of landlords.
These owners "did the right thing," Jennifer says. "Most landlords would have just tossed everything and never said a word."
Jennifer is a landlord herself who's been flipping houses for nearly 20 years and has dozens of rental units across the state. It was in that capacity that she got the idea for this side business. She attended a seminar lead by an official from the state Department of Health and Human Service's Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Program. He explained how to spot the signs of a lab and what the landlord is obligated to do when one emerges. It was one offhand comment in particular that stuck with her.
"He said, 'When I retire from the state, I'm going into [the decontamination] business,'" Jennifer recalls. "'I'll make a killing!'"
Jennifer had a business administration degree and was always looking for flexible forms of work as her daughter moved through adolescence. So why not clean up old meth labs?
She began researching the qualifications needed to tidy up after tweakers and recruited her father, a retired elementary school principal, and Heath, a maintenance man for her rentals. They moved through the trainings and certifications: a $350 class on handling hazardous materials, an $800 multi-day program on the risks of meth sites specifically, an annual $300 methamphetamine remediation license for the company and $50 yearly meth remediation technician certificates for each person on her crew. In West Virginia, you need all this to even walk through the door of a site after a meth bust.
Despite this accreditation, the process of cleaning up a meth site is not all that complicated, chemically speaking. The solution Jennifer and her crew use is a mix of carpet cleaner, degreaser, and dish soap. Like the ingredients for meth itself, all that can be bought at Lowe's. They spray it onto every surface. "Then, we scrub the shit out of it," Jennifer says. It usually takes three sprays and scrubs before the residue is below the state standard.
That standard might be overly cautious. In 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that 1.5 µg/100 cm²—15 times the amount of meth residue allowed by West Virginia—was the threshold for health hazard and set that as its own recommended standard. But that's only a suggestion, and the laws of meth contamination are a patchwork from state to state. Minnesota, Kansas, Virginia, California, and other states use the EPA's recommendation. Some—like Nebraska, Washington, Alaska, and West Virginia—go by the harsh 0.1 µg/100 cm² standard, and several set it somewhere between.
All of these measurements are lighter than the weight of a single grain of rice, but between them is a difference of tens of thousands of dollars if a cook site is found on any given property.
Take for instance, an elderly woman whose home Jennifer cleaned. She lived with an adult grandson who cooked and smoked meth. By West Virginia's 0.1 µg/100 cm² standard, the whole house was contaminated. In addition to the hefty cost of the cleaning, everything she owned had to go to the dump.
"She lost everything, all her belongings she collected her entire life," Jennifer remembers. "I would petition the state to raise the level. I don't even care if I lose business. I've seen too many people pointlessly lose everything."
Anthony Turner is director of the West Virginia Department of Health's Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Program. He's sympathetic to property owners, but tells me, "I'd rather err on the side of caution when it comes to public health. These are residential units where children might live."
Rachel's apartment yields only one truck load of tattered furniture for the dump. While Heath and Joe get lunch, Jennifer drives it there.
Just like the cleaning, the disposal of meth-contaminated stuff is surprisingly simple, albeit hampered by bureaucracy. Jennifer deposits everything she takes from a site at a municipal landfill, where it is buried, but first she has to photograph each item and file an accompanying form, all of which goes to the state.
After conferring with a few sanitation workers sitting in a trailer, she drives the truck to a set of metal dumpsters full of tires, stoves, bedframes, and five-gallon buckets. The place smells like gasoline and burned plastic.
Jennifer puts on gloves, photographs each item, and tosses it into a dumpster.
"Ha, look at this," she says, grabbing a meth pipe from the bed of her truck. She hauls these around so often she doesn't know if it's from the Clarksburg apartment or leftover from another job. "I could have been driving around with this for weeks. I could have picked up my daughter from school with it." The bed is also littered with seashells—she found a basket of them at a cook site and it fell over in her truck.
We drive back into town. The houses are quaint, small and well kept, almost cottage-like. Plazas shine with signs for Dairy Queen, Little Caesar's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Clarksburg is unpretentious Appalachia, and it doesn't resemble the burned out, boarded-up former factory towns ubiquitous to stories about "the meth scourge"—though two meth sites were busted in Clarksburg the week Jennifer and I drove through town.
Jennifer and her crew come in and view meth users' surroundings after they're busted or vanish. In other words, when they've hit rock bottom. Though she's seen a few places that resemble the drug dens of Breaking Bad , most, she says, look utterly normal. And that's what haunts her.
"There's religious stuff everywhere, Jesus posters and all that. We go into kids' rooms and see the usual SpongeBob sheets. I'd say the greatest myth is that meth heads live in filth. Most of these places are immaculate. Meth heads can stay up all night cleaning. They have the energy."
Beneath the surface in every case, there's evidence of hardcore drug use. It's almost a game when the three cleaners walk into a house to find the hidden syringes. They're under carpets or flood boards or sewn into mattresses. "We've found them in baby bottles," Jennifer says. "We found them in a hollowed-out Bible once."
"Where there are children involved, that's the worst part," offers Heath. "That affects me a little bit. Otherwise, it's just work." Kids live in 80 percent of the places they clean, he tells me.
Stories about meth often come with theories on why this particular drug has such a foothold in the boonies: Coke and heroin seem exotic and taboo. Meth helps with manual labor. Barns and remote, abandoned buildings provide cover for labs.
A lifelong West Virginian, Jennifer says she knows people who've used meth, "people I would have never expected until they told me. Contractors use it to stay up three days to finish a deadline." She's never had a bust in one of her rentals, though.
Jennifer notes the exploding popularity of some hard drugs in general, like heroin. She's seen enough pill bottles and dope paraphernalia in busted meth sites to think all these drugs are rising in popularity together, and she's seen enough Jesus tchotchkes and throw pillows to know they're all working their way into the banal fabric of normal life here.
"Why is meth popular?" she asks. "Because it gets you high."