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Drug debris confronts highway cleaners

Jane Stebbins / Summit County Correspondent

The 20,000 volunteers who clean up trash each year along the state’s highways run into an array of interesting items that people have dumped alongside the roads.

Trash is ubiquitous: fast-food containers and wrappers, cigarette butts, cardboard boxes and empty soda cans and bottles.

Crews also find such things as rope, dead animals, the debris left over from car wrecks, tires and furniture.



In Summit County, for example, seven crews help keep Highway 6 clean, 16 groups work on Highway 9, and 13 otherstry to keep Interstate 70 tidy.

Now they’ve got one more thing for which to keep their eyes open: waste left over from methamphetamine labs that manufacturers dump or hide alongside highway shoulders or in culverts and drainages.



Summit County, however, seems to be immune from the problem – for now, said Sheriff John Minor.

“There’s some bizarre stuff on the side of the highway anyway,” he said. “It (meth debris) is very uncommon right now, but there’s no telling what the future will bring.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation, which oversees the 16-year-old Adopt-A-Highway program, recently released a video showing volunteers how to identify and treat suspected meth lab materials.



It is being distributed to 1,800 Adopt-A-Highway groups. Volunteers patrol about 40 percent of Colorado’s 9,000-mile state highway system, picking up hundreds of tons of trash for disposal.

The eight-minute video explains the drug, including what happens when people consume it – euphoria – to its downside: paranoia. It depicts how the drug is manufactured, why it’s so prevalent and why it creates so much waste.

According to Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Bob Wilson, to make an ounce of methamphetamine, it takes about 400 easily obtained, over-the-counter cold remedy pills – plus myriad other ingredients. The process of making the drug is highly dangerous, as the ingredients involved are explosive.

The drug is cheap, and therefore becoming more prevalent.

In 1998, law enforcement seized 31 crystal methamphetamine labs statewide. By 2002, that grew to 687.

And when manufacturers get rid of the byproducts, they often resort to tossing them on the side of the road, Wilson said.

Adopt-A-Highway volunteers should be aware of their surroundings while gathering trash. Clues that methamphetamine trash include areas where the vegetation is dying, a smell of rotten eggs and tools that go into making the drug, Wilson said.

Those include such things as propane tanks, flasks and measuring cups – or worse, the so-called “death bags,” trash bags filled with toxic phosgene gas, a byproduct of methamphetamine production.

“It only takes a few parts per million before you have some lung issues,” Minor said. “A lot of officers have been retired because they’ve bumped into a meth lab without adequate protection. Their lungs are shot. This stuff is deadly.”

In Summit County, it’s not uncommon for trash crews to find trash bags dumped along the highways – most of which have either fallen off the back of a vehicle or were dumped by tourists leaving town. Highway volunteers across the state are urged to take caution.

“A lot of times it might be more than what you’re seeing,” Wilson said. “A measuring cup could be indicative of what might be nearby, and it could be the remnants of a meth lab. They just need to be aware that some of these common items are also used for illicit purposes.”

If clean-up crews come across something they feel is suspicious, they are advised to alert their crew leader, who should notify local law enforcement.


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