Oak Harbor car lot contaminated by meth makes history

A North Whidbey used car lot earned the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first dealership to have its license yanked by the state due to methamphetamine contamination.

The state Department of Licensing issued a summary suspension of O&J Sales’ license last week. The notice of summary suspension states that meth contamination of vehicles, as well as the business’ failure to transfer titles in a timely manner, as the reasons for the action. Brad Benfield, spokesman for the department, said it was the first time meth contamination has been cited in a suspension.

But the owner of O&J Sales is frustrated by what he feels is an overzealous health department, unclear state rules about meth contamination and the unequal application of those rules.

“If the standards were applied to every car dealership in the state, most of them would go out of business,” said Oak Harbor resident Mark Brown, a retired elementary school teacher and owner of the car lot.

The standard that the Island County Health Department used is so low, Brown said, that a meth smoker could contaminate a car by simply going on a test drive. On the other side, health officials are just starting to realize the mounting problems with meth use — specifically the smoking of the crystalline drug — tainting homes and cars, possibly putting unsuspecting people at a health risk.

Brown said he had 22 cars, valued at nearly $70,000, hauled away and crushed last week because they were contaminated with meth. He said it wasn’t worth the high cost of cleaning the used cars, which involves a certified specialist, especially since they will be hard to sell with a contamination history.

Brown is especially outraged that one of the contaminated cars came from a State Patrol auction, which means the law enforcement agency sold a contaminated vehicle. The car had been seized by the State Patrol after drugs were found inside, according to Brown.

For O&J, the problems began in March when the Island County Sheriff’s Office raided the Goldie Road lot and found 94 grams of meth, which detectives said was worth about $9,000. Deputies arrested the manager, Brown’s son Nolan, for meth possession. Nolan had a history of drug problems; his father said he bought the business to give his son a profitable job.

After the drug bust, employees from the Island County Health Department tested the building and three cars for meth. Officials didn’t suspect that meth was being manufactured, but they were concerned smoke from meth use could have caused contamination. Marie Piper, an environmental health specialist, was shocked when all the swabs came back positive for meth; the building was tested at 5,200 times the state standard.

But the standard is part of the problem, in Brown’s view. The state set the meth decontamination level at 0.1 micrograms per 100 centimeters squared. The level is not based on health concerns, but it’s merely the lowest level that can be detected with current tests. Companies certified to clean meth contamination must get below that number.

This spring, the state of California set the level of meth contamination at 1.5 micrograms per 100 centimeters squared, which is 15 times the Washington standard. California’s number was based on scientific studies of the effect of meth contamination.

If the California standard was used, Brown said only five of the cars would have been considered positive for meth contamination.

Piper said she would probably support using the California standard in Washington in the future, but she has to follow the current law. Even so, she said having five cars contaminated to the level of proven health danger is a serious problem and necessitated the shut down.

“A factor of 15 isn’t a great deal when dealing with health issues,” Piper said. “I don’t think the Washington state standard was overly burdensome.”

A total of 61 vehicles on the lot were tested and 29 came back as “hot” or contaminated.

In response to the Department of Licensing investigation, Brown pointed out that 10 vehicle titles were late in being transfered because the Sheriff’s Office seized them when the search warrant was served. He eventually got them back and transfered them all over. The Department of Licensing investigation notes that the criminal investigation caused the delay, but it was still cited as a reason for the license suspension.

It’s been an expensive problem for both the dealership and the county. Piper said the health department ended up paying for most of the testing after a high-tech device proved to be inaccurate and Brown kept delaying the testing. The county’s funds for testing come from a grant. Brown said he paid to have 19 cars tested at a cost of $12,000.

Brown said he’ll probably pay to have five of the cars cleaned, which costs about $2,500 each. He said he spent $12,000 to have the office cleaned.

Brown feels that he is being unfairly singled out by the Health Department. He postulated that all used car dealerships in the state, and maybe some new car lots, have vehicles for sale that are contaminated by meth, based on the state standard.

Piper isn’t so sure that’s true, though she said there’s probably a lot of contaminated cars circulating. She said the O&J manager took a risk in buying cars with questionable backgrounds, such as the car seized by law enforcement. What’s more important to remember, Piper said, is that Nolan Brown brought scrutiny on to the car lot by allegedly possessing meth. Under law, she said health officials have to order testing when there’s a reason to suspect contamination.

On the other hand, Piper said she agrees that the State Patrol shouldn’t sell a car without testing when there’s a reason to suspect contamination. And if a car is seized because of drug-related activity, that’s a really good reason.

“That’s something I’m going to look into once I get some time,” she said.

Piper said the issue of meth contamination is keeping her very busy. She’s dealt with 12 contaminated properties so far this year. In the two previous years, there were only a total of 10 cases.

Two businesses next to the car lot have been closed for weeks due to meth contamination, which came through a ventilation system from a unit used by O&J employees. Piper said they have been cleaned and should open “in the next week or two.”

As for O&J Sales, Brown said he’s not sure if the business will survive. He said he’s reluctantly gone along with the Health Department’s demands, but he’s not ruling out the possibility of a lawsuit down the road. He suspects that the testing wasn’t done according to protocol, though health official say everything was done correctly.

“This is not the way the United States of America is supposed to work,” he said. “I’m just blown away.”

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