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Containers on back roads may contain meth-making chemicals

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

SIKESTON -- What may appear to be a harmless container lying along a back road may be full of harmful toxins and corrosives used to make methamphetamine.

That's why landowners and motorists are encouraged to be suspicious of any jugs or containers found on the roadways.

"Meth has been a serious problem for quite a while, and it's been around a long time," said Sgt. Kevin Glaser of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and supervisor of the SEMO Drug Task Force.

And for the past 10 years law enforcement officials have particularly been battling clandestine meth labs, Glaser noted.

"Mobile labs have also become very popular, and during the cooking process, people may pull over to the side of road and discard some of their items," Glaser said.

Glaser said the situation is certainly something the public needs to be aware of because of the volatile chemicals involved.

"Kids may be walking along the side of roads and see what looks like a soda bottle, and it's actually acid and they can be severely burned," Glaser said.

The same thing can happen to highway workers mowing the median or doing construction, Glaser pointed out.

Over the past several years Missouri has led the nation in the number of meth lab seizures. In 2004, law officers busted 2,788 meth labs, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Through April 2005 the number is on pace for a 40 percent increase.

"Meth producers are cruising the back roads of Missouri and disposing of the waste chemicals," agreed University of Missouri hazardous waste specialist Robb Pilkington in a recent news release. "Any jug or container along side the road could potentially contain hazardous chemicals and acid."

Landowners across the state could also have portable labs on their land without even knowing it, Pilkington said.

Farm operators should be on the lookout for any suspicious activity around their tanks of anhydrous ammonia -- a key ingredient used in the production of illegal methamphetamine, Pilkington noted. Farmers should look for signs of people driving on their land and for places where intruders have hopped fences.

Meth producers have come up with new formulas, which still use anhydrous but also strong acids and salt. These materials are highly flammable and caustic, Pilkington said.

A tank of anhydrous ammonia, used by farmers as nitrogen fertilizer, in an open field is an invitation to thieves who want to make methamphetamine. "There are very limited places to purchase anhydrous ammonia and generally meth manufacturers resort to stealing it from farmers," Glaser said. Farmers should keep tanks close to the farm but hidden from the road and not in isolated fields, Pilkington said.

Missouri is seeing increased use of picnic coolers, LP gas cylinders and fire extinguishers to transport anhydrous ammonia. This is a dangerous practice, especially for law enforcement officers because these containers are not designed to hold anhydrous ammonia and can be come severely weakened or fail, releasing intense vapors and fumes overwhelming anyone close by.

Glaser advised everyone to just use common sense.

"One of the biggest threats is the anhydrous ammonia tanks, and unfortunately, they come in a variety shapes," Glaser said.

The most common anhydrous container is propane cylinders, Glaser said. If a cylinder has been tampered with, generally a person will find a modification to the valve.

"It won't look like normal," Glaser explained. "And another thing that's an indicator is a blue film or tinge around the valve where the anhydrous has been eating away at it."

If a person runs across a container with those signs on it, the best thing for them to do is to leave it alone and call their local law enforcement agency, Glaser advised.

At minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit, anhydrous ammonia can cause severe skin burns, lung damage and blindness.

Meanwhile the war against meth is far from over, and the public needs to be aware of that, Glaser said.

"I think we're going to start seeing a little headway in regards to clandestine labs -- and that's strictly a prediction on my part," Glaser said.

Glaser gives credit to new legislation enacted over the last couple years, and most recently the legislation that requires drug stores to put pseudophedrine behind the counters.

"What I think is going to happen is we'll see a decrease in number of labs, but that's not going to take care of the abuse of methamphetamine," Glaser said. Law enforcement officials will still have to deal with meth importation from, for example, Mexican drug cartels based in southern California that manufacture by the volume -- about 40, 50 and 60 pounds at a time compared to one or two to several ounces at a time in the Midwest.

"Just be aware of what's going on around you," Glaser advised. "And keep an open eye."