MONUMENT - It was a rough week for citizens of Monument. First, on Jan. 7, residents learned that a pair of suspected methamphetamine dealers were released without bail and allowed to return to their rental home in Monument. Then, on Jan. 8, a chemical dump of an unknown origin forced the evacuation of a home and the complete flushing of the city's new sewer system.
The concerns of meth labs operating in the city and the dump of toxic chemicals into the city's sewer system may be intertwined, officials now believe.
"A lot of things led us to believe that chemicals from a meth lab were dumped into the sewer system," said Mayor Joe Duncan.
"There was a heavy chemical smell, so I would suspect it was from somebody dumping sludge from a meth lab or buildup from a meth lab," agreed Grant County Undersheriff Jim McNellis.
Officials could not confirm the precise location where the chemical dump originated. However, a meth lab, perhaps a lab like the one allegedly operated by Jeffrey and Ruby Ann Geist on Monument's Main Street, could be the culprit for the hazardous fumes, officials said.
Under a Dec. 20 grand jury indictment, the Geists were charged with numerous felonies related to possession and manufacture of methamphetamine. The Geists face prosecution in both Deschutes and Grant counties following searches of their vehicle and home in Monument, searches which police say yielded materials used in the manufacture of meth. The suspects received a conditional release without bail from Grant County Circuit Court Judge William Cramer on Jan. 7 - much to the chagrin of Monument citizens.
It remains unknown whether a meth lab was involved in Wednesday's chemical dump. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality may test sewer lagoons in an effort to trace the chemicals, Duncan said.
The chemical dump was detected by a city resident. Fumes, released from faulty plumbing traps, backed up into two residences, Duncan said. One was vacant, but the other residence was occupied, and this resident called dispatchers at about 5 a.m. complaining of noxious fumes, Duncan said. Fire Chief Roy Peterson contacted a hazardous materials, or HazMat, team in Pendleton for guidance on how to correct the problem. Undersheriff McNellis responded to the scene to launch an investigation and possibly deal with an emergency.
"We didn't know if we would have to evacuate the whole town," he said.
However, a full evacuation was averted. Officials did remain concerned that the volatile ingredients used in the making of meth might have entered the sewers and emitted their fumes into other residences.
"It was a potentially dangerous situation," Duncan said.
Ultimately, it appeared that the two residences with faulty plumbing were the only ones affected, McNellis said.
Advised by the HazMat team, city officials flushed the sewer system, diluting its contents with water and pumping the mixture to sewer lagoons for analysis, Duncan said. Investigators, meanwhile, lifted manhole covers and attempted to trace the fumes to their source.
"You could smell it all over the east end of town," McNellis recalled.
The sewer system, only completed last year, may have lost its bacterial organisms to the toxic chemicals, McNellis said. The extent of damage to the system remains to be determined.