BURLINGTON — The city of Burlington advised residents of the Sterling Motor Inn on Friday to leave the motel until further notice after tests found widespread high levels of methamphetamine contamination.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton recommended residents evacuate and leave behind their belongings, which are likely contaminated. Testing found contamination was above the state standard that would require cleanup in all but one room. One of the contaminated rooms was found to have 173 times the state standard for methamphetamine residue.
On Friday night, the city set up a shower station for residents of the motel in the one room that tested clean enough for occupancy, City Administrator Bryan Harrison said.
Pioneer Human Services and Community Action of Skagit County were on site with donated clothes, and the city is offering transportation and up to a 10-night stay at a nearby hotel for displaced residents.
The city’s top priority is getting residents out of the motel and into a safe environment, Sexton said.
“We have knowledge that there is unhealthful, unsafe levels of meth contamination and we feel obligated to notify those folks and help in any way we can,” he said.
The city is in talks with numerous organizations including Community Action, Pioneer Human Services, the Red Cross and Pioneer Transition House to help displaced residents.
Although Sexton said some will be able to find temporary housing on their own, quite a few will likely become homeless.
“Our goal is to provide assessment, education and options for short-term housing and mental health resources,” Harrison said. “This is going to be a stressful day (for the motel’s residents).”
On Thursday evening, the city placed notices on vacant rooms at the motel with a warning not to enter or occupy the space.
Some of the residents are families with small children as well as the elderly. Sexton said it is heartbreaking to think of the contamination they are exposed to on a daily basis.
“We are going to go to the furthest extent to protect these people,” he said.
Harrison said many who stay at the motel do so because they have limited options.
“We are going to be telling folks to leave their oxygen tanks, medications and all their belongings behind,” Harrison said.
Connie Bellehumeur, who lives with her daughter and two grandchildren at the motel, said she is scared of what will happen now.
Bellehumeur, 64, has a medical condition and requires a device to administer her medicine. She said she is worried about not being able to bring the machine with her after being asked to leave all belongings behind.
She said she is not sure where she will go if she cannot stay at the motel, saying the motel was the “lesser of evils” compared to other motels in Burlington.
The owners of the motel have been notified of the test results and cooperated with the city in posting notices, Harrison said.
The contamination levels at the motel were so prevalent that the testing lab thought its machines were wrong, Sexton said.
The state requires cleanup when methamphetamine contamination reaches 1.5 micrograms per 100-square-centimeters.
The Skagit County Public Health Department was notified of the levels and has the authority to take action when there is a known public health hazard, Sexton said.
At this point, the county has not acted, he said.
“If the Skagit County Public Health Department doesn’t act at this level, then they should disband and save taxpayer dollars,” Sexton said.
County spokeswoman Bronlea Mishler said the county health department’s role is to provide education and guidance for those involved.
The Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office gave the health department a legal opinion on the matter, Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said.
“We told them they could not immediately evict those people,” he said.
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office was notified of the city’s plans Thursday afternoon and was not involved in the decision-making, Weyrich said.
Joon Um, the manager of the motel, said the motel’s problems are out of his hands.
Currently, about 35 to 50 people appear to be staying at the motel, either long- or short-term. There are currently 16 vacant rooms and 17 occupied rooms, Harrison said.
Troy Benofsky, who has lived with his two children at the motel for about two months, said although the situation is a nightmare, it is also a blessing to leave the motel.
“My kids and I have started from nothing before,” he said. “We will bounce back and continue on.”