The brouhaha at the Stringham Avenue apartments began in December when a potential buyer of the complex asked for a meth test during an inspection of the units.
Matt Walker, who owns 148 apartment units in Salt Lake and Utah counties, said he regularly tests for meth when buying apartments. The company Walker hired found 10 of the 12 dwellings tainted with meth to varying degrees.
Anthony Cortez, the apartment owner, then paid a different "decontamination specialist" to test the same apartments. His test found only four of 12 units at 545 E. Stringham Ave. were contaminated.
So with thousands of dollars in cleanup costs resting on the two tests and two entirely different results both parties went to the Salt Lake Valley Health Department to battle it out and landed in Brian Reid's office.
After discussions, the department concluded six of the apartments needed to be thoroughly cleaned, repainted and recarpeted.
With the property in transition, tenants in six units were booted out a week before Christmas. Cortez, who had owned the buildings for three years, was out $60,000 to $70,000 on the sale price and the $600 per month for a two-bedroom apartment until the sale closed.
Today, he is livid. The situation at his apartment illustrates a messy conundrum for landlords and tenants because of a meth-testing system that is outdated, unreliable and unscientific.
"It's a huge problem, and it's not a problem of methamphetamine on the walls," Cortez said.
How can meth tests be so wildly varied in results?
How can decontamination specialists hold so much power over landlords and tenants?
How can the health department close apartments when there are no established health risks at such low levels of meth?
"The health department really needs to take a look at the issue and clean it up," Cortez said. "There are no checks and balances."
With methamphetamine use rampant in Utah, Cortez says as many as 80 percent of rentals may have meth residue. Meth testing makes it possible for unscrupulous buyers to acquire property for less money, remove all the tenants, get new carpet and paint paid for and then have the ability to negotiate new leases with new tenants.
"You get a clean slate on property," Cortez said. "It's really taking advantage of a law that was written to keep people from living where there have been meth labs.
"These guys are getting everything handed to them on a golden platter."
Not true, said Walker. It hasn't been good for him. "I took ownership on a Monday and the health department shut it down the same day. I'm on the hook for deposits and losing money every day."
Walker said he's out $250 in mortgages every day the apartments sit empty. "In hindsight, going into it, I would have negotiated differently."
Cortez lost about $70,000 on the sale, and he says a furor is growing over this issue.
"If the health department doesn't get on it, this is going to be a huge problem for property owners and renters in this valley," he said.
"They really don't seem to care, so the Legislature needs to look at this and revamp the whole process."
Walker says he's losing money, too, but hopes to get the apartments rented soon.
"They'll be one of the only places guaranteed to have no meth in them," Walker said.
Renters seem to be forgotten in the whole process. In January, when it was originally concluded that six of the Stringham Avenue apartments needed to be cleaned, several tenants moved out right away. Rob Swenson was one who stuck around and was moved from a unit with what he called "extremely low-level contamination" into a unit he believed was clean, according to tests.
Swenson and the remaining tenants wondered what the "cleanup" would entail and when it would take place.
Property owner Cortez was negotiating the apartments' sale. Part of the discussion centered on who would pay how much for the cleanup.
A couple of residents said they saw a worker around once or twice in preparations for a possible cleanup. According to some accounts, the worker was asked when the cleanup was scheduled. He wouldn't say, Swenson said.
Then one day in late January, Swenson said he woke up and found himself choking.
"My eyes were burning, I didn't feel like I could breathe, I was coughing hard. I had a headache, and my body was itchy all over," he wrote in an e-mail.
He stumbled outside his apartment and found neighbor Emma MacLaren choking and coughing.
Loren and Emma MacLaren's upstairs unit originally didn't show toxic levels of meth, so the couple stayed put. But the MacLarens had grown increasingly wary of the plan to clean neighboring apartments. No one really kept tenants informed, they said.
Because no one told them anything, the tenants decided to conduct their own meth tests.
According to Swenson, the supposedly "safe" apartments had "significant" levels of meth in them, too. He said the apartment to which he was relocated after the first test had five times the meth levels of his former unit.
A couple of weeks before, Emma MacLaren crossed paths with a worker from a meth cleanup company who was cleaning out a downstairs unit. "We'll be coming back sometime later to spray," the worker told her. "It might be a little stinky."
But when workers came back to clean the affected units, the incident the MacLarens call "the cleanup debacle" occurred.
Emma MacLaren returned home from doing errands, took one whiff of her apartment, noticed her burning eyes and got out. "It didn't just smell, it was so heavy up there that it physically affected us," Loren MacLaren said.
"The way we've described it is like putting your head in a bag of bleach and inhaling. It was very, very unpleasant."
In a frenzy, Swenson tried unsuccessfully to contact the landlord, then got bounced around to various people at Utah Poison Control Center and the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. He finally landed in a conversation with Diane Keay.
Fifteen minutes later, the street was full of hazardous materials vehicles, an ambulance, firetrucks and police cars.
The decision was made to evacuate the entire complex. "They went door-to-door, telling people to get out, that it wasn't safe to stay," Swenson said.
Now Swenson and others had to find a place to stay, and with temporary custody of his two toddler-age girls, the situation was dire. He ended up temporarily bunking with his grandparents.
"This entire situation has been a complete nightmare," Swenson said.
In the past four weeks, he has called everyone who will listen from Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, state lawmakers and the Division of Environmental Quality. He's requested records and documents.
First, Swenson was uncertain whether his apartment was safe from meth contamination, then came the cleanup chemicals that caused him to choke.
He has become increasingly frustrated.
"At this point, I feel that the government is acting pretty negligent about the issues," Swenson said.