ELKHART — Trash bags on the edge of the road may not be dirty diapers and food scraps. As city officials and a volunteer at the Elkhart Environmental Center found out recently, it could be the remnants of a meth lab.
And local police and firefighters don’t have the training to clean them up.
City Councilman Ron Troyer, D-4th, was driving around his district March 27 with the new community affairs officer at the Elkhart Police Department, Sgt. Wayne Bias. Among things they looked at was trash dumped along the side of Perkins Street on city property at the Elkhart Environmental Center.
A number of trash bags and tires sat just below and within 15 feet of a sign that warns of a $2,500 fine for dumping trash, Troyer said.
The Elkhart Street Department was asked to pick up the trash, but Commissioner Marty Morgan told Troyer it was determined the trash was actually meth trash and it was tagged with yellow ribbons to be picked up by the Indiana State Police, which has a special unit to dispose of meth labs.
“I just figured job done,” Troyer said.
Troyer brought up the concern at the city council meeting on April 2 to inform other council members.
“There’s four to five bags. It’s public ... (on) city property on the side of the road. It’s not back in the woods or anything,” Troyer said Tuesday.
The Elkhart Police Department’s report on the meth trash is dated 9:30 a.m. April 3, when a volunteer from the Elkhart Environmental Center reported it. “When she looked at it, it was immediately apparent it was meth trash,” said Assistant Chief Tim Balyeat.
The remains included tubing, tin foil, psuedophedrine, bottles with liquid in them and cakes of white powder residue, Balyeat said.
“The police department is not trained, is not equipped and does not have the storage facilities” to deal with meth labs, he said.
The report states that the supervisor contacted ISP at the scene and was told to “‘leave the materials where they are’” and that it would be cleaned up by Tuesday, Balyeat said. The scene was marked with orange tape to identify the materials.
While it wasn’t an active lab, there’s still a concern for the public’s health and safety, Balyeat said.
Councilman David Henke, R-3rd, was concerned. He called Troyer Saturday night to make sure the bags had been picked up. Troyer checked at 9:30 that night and the bags remained.
Troyer said Henke called the dispatch center and an officer called Elkhart County, which works with the state. Troyer was told it would be cleaned up in a half hour.
By Monday morning — more than 10 days later — the bags were still there, Troyer said. This time, Police Chief Dale Pflibsen and Balyeat were there.
A short time later, the Elkhart Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Team was in special suits and respiratory protection containing the bags.
“We were ordered to get it cleaned up,” Balyeat said. “I wouldn’t let any of my guys mess with it.”
Mayor Dick Moore’s office ordered the cleanup, Balyeat said.
Lt. Laura Koch, public information officer for EPD, said officers are trained to recognize meth materials and to know who to call to take care of it, but the ISP suppression team cleans them up. She confirmed that officers are not trained to know whether labs are active.
EPD shut down Perkins Street for the fire department.
“It was something that we were requested to do because it was close to the side of the road,” said Fire Chief Mike Compton.
The hazmat team contained all of the waste in one sealed drum, which is normally used for hazardous materials, Compton said.
He said the cleanup “went seamless, just like training.”
Compton said firefighters are not trained as a team specifically for meth lab cleanup, although some firefighters may have taken classes on it. “We’d like to avoid that if we can,” Compton said.
Meth cleanups are expensive and whoever cleans it up is financially responsible for storing and handling it, he said. The city doesn’t have the proper storage facility, which ISP does.
“We do not want to get involved in meth cleanup,” Compton said.
Balyeat said the container will be moved to the police department, where ISP is expected to pick it up today or Thursday. “There’s nothing we can do with this,” Balyeat said of whether EPD will investigate. He said it was too volatile.
Sgt. Trent Smith, ISP spokesperson, said the team that disposes of meth labs works similar to trash pickup when it’s not an emergency situation.
“What has happened is, in the past, you had officers that were called out immediately for all meth trash that was found,” Smith said. “It became just a logistical nightmare. There was a lot of funding involved in it.”
Cleanup involves two officers, a trailer and instruments.
Now the team takes several days each week and rotates to several locations to pick up materials that might not be harmful or aren’t an immediate threat.
“Typically, it’s within a week or two,” Smith said. “If it’s something that’s major, they’ll come out that day.”
If something doesn’t seem to be a danger, a week isn’t out of the ordinary, Smith said. “It’s one of those things that each person sees it a little bit differently,” he said.
But not everything still has chemicals processing, Smith said. “Not everything needs a high priority,” he said.
Smith was not aware of the local situation.
Troyer is concerned for both the public and city employees. “I think it’s something we need to address,” Troyer said. “If it’s going to be local, someone needs to be trained.”