A small meth lab explodes in a Highlands basement, leading to a damaging fire. Who let the white trash in?
Meth lab fires aren’t supposed to catch in places like the Highlands, according to the fairy tale that says white man’s crack is a rural problem, an emancipator of broken Midwestern America brought to you in a toxic waft so feared by anyone with a cursory understanding of biology that tearing out the walls, floors and ceilings of a high-traffic meth lab is par for the course.
But last week it finally happened, when a fire broke out in the basement of a building near Bardstown Road and Grinstead Drive, one of the city’s busiest intersections in one of its hippest neighborhoods. You may know the building as Spindletop Draperies, a specialty home store that rents the street-level floor and is now tattooed as that place where the meth lab was, even though owner Tyler Payne, who’s rented space there since 1975, said neither he nor his business had anything to do with it.
The story so far is that for some 15 years, a man had used the basement to exercise a hobby refurbishing cars. According to police, he was nowhere to be found on April 23, just after 1 a.m., when a plastic gallon-jug teeming with the volatile chemical ingredients of methamphetamine exploded and spread a fire all the way into the back portion of the unaffiliated business above. A spokesman for Metro Police said they have a person of interest in the case, but did not give a name.
Payne said he had met the man a few times and that during the week before the fire, a smell he figured to be auto paint had seeped upstairs occasionally, though he thought little of it. Payne did not give the man’s name.
Police aren’t sure exactly how the fire transpired. In the basement they found a small “user” lab, an operation meant to supply the user and perhaps some friends, not an extensive network, according to Sgt. Stanley Salyards of the narcotics unit, who was on the scene last week.
He said user labs, also called tweakers or mobile meth labs, are the most common busts made in Louisville. The meth cocktail, which contains some combination of ether, sodium hydroxate, ammonium nitrate, hydrochloric or sulfuric acid, is contained in small plastic bottles, ranging in size from a two-liter pop bottle to a 5-gallon water tank. Once the chemicals are placed together, they react, often producing dangerous gases. However, with smaller labs, the threat posed by residue from the gases is lower.
“A lot of what we’re seeing with these really small amounts or one pot, there’s not a lot of contamination there,” Connie Mendel of the Metro Health Department said.
The basement is mostly concrete, which should make the cleanup process relatively simple: Mendel said anything that would clean the soot and smoke residue would also take care of meth leftovers, of which health department workers found few. The front portion of Spindletop, used for retail, reopened the following day. But the fire crept further into the back, which is used for production and warehousing. Officials found some residue there, so it was closed pending cleanup. Mendel said the fire consumed most of the chemicals.
Payne, whose father owns the building, said he met with an insurance agent on Thursday but offered no details. State law requires property owners to pay for meth cleanup; however, the requirements are considerably more extensive — and expensive — if the lab is housed in a residence, Mendel said, and there are state funds available to assist cleanups where the owner was not the offender. The same cleanup requirements do not apply to a business, although Mendel said the health department would not allow it to reopen unless it was sufficiently scrubbed.
“It absolutely floored me,” Payne said of the discovery. “I had no idea.”
If crack was the drug to hammer poor black America into personal, social and economic devastation, then meth is the great equalizer on the misery index. It is a drug of poor white people, both across the country and in Louisville, where the vast majority of those arrested for meth since 2006 have been caucasian.
Records obtained from Metro Police through the Kentucky Open Records Act show more than 500 meth-related arrests between January 2006 and March of this year, although some of those are multiple charges against the same person. Fewer than 30 of those involved African Americans.
As well, most of the 136 meth labs discovered in Louisville over the same period were in the southwestern portion of the city, also one of the poorest areas. Labs were discovered in homes, apartments, even hotel rooms.
Salyards said meth was once a largely rural problem in Kentucky, but with the relative ease and portability of the one-pot method, it’s become an urban issue, too. Over the last three years, Metro Police have become more aggressive in tracking meth operations, expanding training and public awareness campaigns. For the last two years, Salyards said, Louisville has led the state in the number of meth operations found for two basic reasons: It is both the biggest city and home to the most pharmacies, where users can get pseudoephedrine, a decongestant and key meth ingredient. There are some 200 pharmacies here, he said, and each county touching Jefferson has less than 10.
“Everybody comes here to get their pseudoephedrine,” Salyards said.
For a list of found meth labs, as well as resources about cleanup and links to other city and state agencies dealing with meth, visit www.louisvilleky.gov/MetroPolice. Contact the writer at email@example.com