COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – A former methamphetamine addict swabbed the walls of two Colorado Springs hotel rooms last month, looking for trace amounts of drug residue.
“Meth smoke is a heavy, sticky substance, much like nicotine,” Rick Fleenor said. “It gets on every surface and stays there forever, unless it’s properly cleaned.”
Meth-Busters, made up of Fleenor and a small group of followers, travels the state in a bid to find dirty hotel rooms, which he says are chosen at random.
It’s a road Fleenor traveled a decade ago when he was hooked on the drug and made the messes he now seeks to eradicate.
“I’ve seen it because I’ve lived it,” Fleenor said. “Users will rent rooms for a week or two at a time, with double beds and four or five people will live together during that time. Eventually motel managers will get enough complaints that they’ll ask them to move out.”
Fleenor reserved rooms May 9 at the Fairfield Inn on Commerce Center Drive and the Extended Stay America, on Corporate Drive. Joined by his assistants, Steven Kreis and Harry Swaw, he rubbed the walls of the rooms with cotton pads and meticulously placed them in a jar, ready to hand over to a Denver lab.
Alarmed by the prevalence of meth residue in rental properties, Fleenor started Meth-Busters in 2007 as a division of Summit Custom Builders, a Denver-based remodeling company.
In 2007, he was trained by Meth Clean-Up Co., in Utah, in how to collect samples. Fleenor said he has since traveled around Colorado to test hotel and motel rooms.
While Fleenor’s intentions may be good, Meth-Busters walks a thin gray line, according to state health officials.
Colleen Brisnehan, an environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, said Fleenor’s certification has no legal validity in Colorado and only national board-certified industrial hygienists can conduct methamphetamine cleanup and testing operations that have legal clout.
“As long as he’s not representing that he is sampling under state regulations or statutes, then what he’s doing is fine,” Brisnehan said. “He’s not certified in the state of Colorado. He doesn’t appear to be doing it under real state statutes, or state regulations.
“There’s nothing wrong with him doing it free of charge and for informational charges, but no legal action can be taken from his tests or their results.”
Reservoir Environmental, the Denver-based lab Fleenor uses for testing, charges $40-$80 for each sample. Fleenor told The Gazette all costs for renting rooms, the equipment for sample-retrieval and the lab tests are financed through his building company, Summit Custom Builders. According to Fleenor, he spends about $15,000 per year on Meth-Busters activities.
Although Meth-Busters’ website states the company is a nonprofit organization, he is not registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Fleenor said the company is working with an attorney to apply for nonprofit status.
When results of the tests come back positive, Fleenor said he sends the report to the property owner or manager. He claims Meth-Busters does not promote any meth clean up business.
Reservoir Environmental’s reports were reviewed by Brisnehan and she confirmed the room tested at the Extended Stay America came back positive for meth presence, based on the lab’s results. Brisnehan said the state’s safety standard is below .5 micrograms of meth per 100 square centimeters and the Extended Stay sample came back at .63 micrograms. Fairfield Inn’s sample came back clean.
State officials employ only national board-certified industrial hygienists to perform meth testing and cleanup operations, Brisnehan said. When they come across high residue results that could indicate the presence of a meth lab, law enforcement gets involved, she explained.
If the contamination in a property is severe enough to require cleanup measures such as drywall removal, the structure can be deemed hazardous and shut down.
Brisnehan said it’s difficult to make any conclusions from just one test.
“The results show the sample obtained from the Extended Stay room is above safety standards, but it’s only slightly higher and there’s no telling how long the remnants have been there from just a cotton swab,” Brisnehan said. “It is very possible that meth was smoked at some point in that room, but there is no context for the results from Mr. Fleenor’s test.”
Repeated calls to the Extended Stay Hotel Inc. office in Charlotte, N.C., were not returned.
While taking hotels by surprise with positive meth results could be interpreted as a coercion tactic, Fleenor insists Meth-Busters holds no hidden agenda.
“We are not out to focus on any particular chain of hotels, this is all done at random,” Fleenor said.
“Once we have laboratory results we send them to the property owner of record on the county site. No one is ever happy that this has been discovered.”
Fleenor sampled a room at the Riviera Motel in Aurora in February. Lab tests showed the sample registered 1.83 micrograms of meth molecules per 100 square centimeters, above federal safety standards.
Manager John Fiscus told The Gazette May 23 he did not know about Fleenor’s activities at his motel until a reporter called, but said he plans to take every step necessary to clean up the meth residue. Being taken by surprise upset the motel manager.
“Knowledge is power, so I suppose the service Meth-Busters performs is useful,” Fiscus said. “However, I would have appreciated to be told in advance that Mr. Fleenor rented one of our rooms for this purpose. His tactics seem somewhat disrespectful to me.”
For a regular-sized hotel room, Fleenor said, the cleanup cost can run between $5,000 to $6,000. For a single-family rental home, it’s upwards of $20,000.
The residue from meth use in places like hotel and motel rooms, as well as residential properties, are what concern Fleenor the most.
The chemicals in meth smoke remain on the walls, surfaces and especially the carpets, Fleenor said. His biggest concern is for children whose parents rent a motel room after it’s been occupied by meth users and the dangerous effects that could pose to their health.
“Our motivation is public awareness and to keep children safe from exposure,” Fleenor said.
At an abandoned motel in Thornton, researchers from the National Jewish Medical Research Center simulated prolonged meth smoke contamination. They confirmed that children present in a structure where meth has been smoked will suffer from exposure to airborne meth and surface meth after the fact.
“There’s no easy answer to this problem,” Fleenor said. “The best we can do is keep raising awareness and take it one day at a time.”
“It’s a fine service for people’s information,” Brisnehan said. “But he has to make it clear that his tests do not require clean ups, and they cannot be used for real estate transactions or legal proceedings.”
– By ANDREA SINCLAIR, The Gazette
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