OLYMPIA -- Tri-City teenagers hired by a state litter control program began cleaning up roadside trash this week, but they already are behind schedule.
That's because state budget cuts resulted in the suspension of the Ecology Youth Corps (EYC) program last year. It was the first time in more than three decades there was no state-funded youth program.
Department of Ecology officials were able to resume the program this year, but with about 50 fewer workers and in shorter sessions.
Five youth workers on the Kennewick-Richland crew working near West Richland collected 62 bags of trash along two miles of Interstate 82 on Wednesday.
Crews normally expect to collect that much trash in four miles, said Crew Supervisor Jason Moyer. About 300 workers are expected to remove 600 tons of litter from roadways and recycle 93,000 pounds of material throughout the state.
About 20 youths aged 14-17 will tackle highways near Richland, Kennewick and Pasco for the next six weeks.
"There is so much trash on the road, it doesn't matter where we go," said Rod Hankinson, regional litter administrator for Central Washington.
Workers are getting honks and waves from passersby -- an indication their efforts were missed, Hankinson said.
Because of fewer resources and increased waste, workers are leaving small items behind and concentrating on baseball-sized trash.
The job is tough, Moyer said. The weather is hot, there are bugs, and traffic is flying by at 70 mph, he said.
"It reflects the kids' character that they're still willing to do it," Moyer said.
The program isn't remedial, but a common myth is that the workers are in some sort of trouble, he said.
"It's fun to explain the opposite," Moyer said.
Applicants must be eligible to work in the U.S., be 14-17 years old and must provide two references from school personnel. They work 37.5 hours per week and are paid $8.67 hourly.
Competition for the program is fierce, Hankinson said. He received about 140 applications from Tri-City youth and had 10 available positions. His goal is to have the crew clean main highways from Sunnyside to the Oregon border by Aug. 19.
The increased amount of litter, however, threatens that objective.
"If it's as heavy as it was today, we're going to have a tough time making it," Moyer said Wednesday.
He said his crew members are team-oriented and don't hesitate to help each other out.
Hankinson urges drivers to abide by the law that requires motorists to pull over for shoulder traffic -- a courtesy he is not seeing as frequently as he would like.
"That could be your kid out there," he said.
* Brier Gabriel: 360-754-4225