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Cleanup crews warned about meth waste

Tamara Miller
Special to the Daily Propane tanks, particularly those with blue corrosion around the top, are a dangerous form of methamphetamine cooking waste.
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Spent boxes of cold medicine. Unused matches without striker plates. Bags of kitty litter.

They may seem like harmless litter alongside a roadway, but volunteers for today’s Community Pride Highway Cleanup are being warned that items like these can be dangerous. They are all common forms of methamphetamine lab waste.

While there have been no reported incidents in Eagle County, there have been cases of Colorado Department of Transportation workers in other parts of the state being injured by unknowingly touching methamphetamine lab waste that has been dumped alongside a highway.

Volunteers are being asked to keep a look out for any suspicious items while cleaning up today.

“We’re doing this as a community effort but we want everyone to be safe,” said Kent Walker, administration coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council, which organizes the annual cleanup.

From household items to “death bags”

“Meth”, “crystal” and “speed” are just a few of the common slang terms for methamphetamine. The drug is an illegal stimulant that can be manufactured using legal, common household chemicals.

Making the drug can be dangerous because the process usually requires compressed gas and heat and explosions are not uncommon. In 2002, there were 12,715 meth lab incidents reported in 46 states, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database.

The chemicals and fumes can penetrate walls, carpets, plaster and wood, as well as soil. When Eagle County sheriff’s deputies busted a meth lab operation in Wolcott last April, the building was declared a hazardous material site, said Det. Katie Bandrup. The home still is considered unsafe.

Every pound of meth made produces about six pounds of meth waste, said Det. Craig Bettis. The vapors from the byproduct can be particularly hazardous to humans. Even more concerning is that manufacturers frequently get rid of the waste by tossing it on the side of the road.

In a video distributed by the Colorado Department of Transportation to state Adopt-A-Highway groups, volunteers are told to look out for items commonly associated with meth labs. Items such as alcohol bottles, unused matches without striker plates or washed striker plates and corroded propane tanks should be considered suspicious.

Another common form of meth waste are trash bags that have been gathered and taped around a tube. Known as “death bags,” these are used to funnel vapors during the meth cooking process, said Mike Goolsby, a department of transportation maintenance supervisor.

Sometimes condoms are used and even kitty litter bags that have been placed inside a trash bag are an indication of a meth lab, he said.

Most importantly, the vapors can be toxic to humans.

Volunteer safety

Up to 1,000 people are expected to lend a hand during today’s clean-up effort on I-70 and U.S. Highway 6. All volunteers will wear gloves and orange safety vests. Team leaders have been told to warn their groups to look out for any potential meth lab waste, Walker said.

If someone does come across something suspicious, they should leave it alone and contact their team leader. A hazardous materials crew will asked to check on it.

The number of people caught in possession of meth has increased in Eagle County, but so far the county hasn’t had the meth lab problem other parts of the state have had, Bandrup said.

Meth labs are more commonly associated with rural settings, such as eastern Colorado, where manufacturers steal fertilizer from farms to produce the drug, Bandrup said. Areas around Grand Junction and Denver have also reported an increase in meth lab busts.

“There are a lot of bad smells associated with meth labs, so it’s easier to do in a more rural setting,” she said.

Volunteers will likely encounter some odd items as they scour the county’s highways and byways today. But it probably won’t be scores of meth lab waste.

“I’ve heard some stories,” Walker said. “There almost always is some sort of lingerie, or underwear item.”

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: tmiller@vaildaily.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.

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Warning signs

Some products commonly found in a methamphetamine lab:

Aluminum foil

Camera or car batteries

Lighter fluid

Alcohol, including rubbing alcohol

Hydrogen peroxide

Kitty litter bags

Cold or allergy pills

Coffee filters

Muriatic acid

Match books

Rubber tubing

Duct tape

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