In what constitutes sort of a reverse-Green Weenie Award, we need to give credit to the New York Times when they get something right. And they get something really right today with a feature and video that revisits the infamous Mobro Garbage Barge episode from the late 1980s: that was when TV news viewers were treated to nightly images of the garbage barge trawling up and down the Atlantic seaboard looking for a place to unload its trash heap, which originated in New York. Eventually, the Mobro returned to New York, dumping its load in a landfill near the Hudson River.
Well, in a feature called “The Retro Report,” the Times revisits the Mobro story and “discover[s] that little of what we thought we knew was true.” We could have told them that at the time, but the media frenzy–captured well in the companion video–was typically irrepressible. Today, the Times explains, “Environmentalists and government regulators explain that the Gar-barge was actually a smart idea that made business and ecological sense.”
Actually the Mobro was far from being the most amazing story of trashy thinking. That distinction belongs to the Khian Sea, another ocean-going barge containing seven tons of ash from incinerated household garbage that set sail from Philadelphia to dispose of the ash in an overseas landfill in 1986. Sixteen years later, the Khian Sea returned to Philadelphia—with its original load of ash. Over those 16 years the Khian Sea sailed around the world, trying to find a country—any country—that would accept the ash for disposal. (You might just say the ship was looking for an ash hole.) The Khian Sea originally had a contract with the Bahamas to accept the ash, but en route the Bahamian government changed it mind and reneged. Turned away from its original destination, the Khian Sea tried several other Caribbean and central American nations without success. Even Haiti wouldn’t take it. So then the ship set off to Africa, trying to unload its cargo (for a fee) in Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Cape Verde. No go. From there the ship steamed to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Borneo, and the Philippines. No takers. So they came back to north America, and tried several U.S. states. They even tried the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. Nope.
Some ports turned away the Khian Sea at gunpoint. During its Flying Dutchman odyssey around the world, the crew mutinied, and two executives of the shipping company went to prison for ordering the crew to dump the ash over the side in the middle of the ocean. The ship was sold once and renamed twice, apparently hoping it could slip its unwanted cargo by a harbor master under a different name. Finally Pennsylvania agreed to take back its trash and bury it in a local landfill, near where it came from in the first place.
It is not as though the Khian Sea’s cargo was hazardous waste fit only for Yucca Mountain. (By the way, has there ever been a more appropriate name for a hazardous waste site than “Yucca Mountain”? It rivals the fictitious manure peak known in TV ads in the 1980s as “Bandini Mountain.”) The ash could have been used for fertilizer. In fact, during its round-the-world cruise, 10-foot tall Australian pine trees grew in the waste pile, along with wildflowers and weeds.
Meanwhile, in another “Whatever Happened To. . .” installment, our friends at PERC have released a new study that reviews another recent eco-scare: Bee colony collapse disorder, and explains why this overblown scare overblew even more quickly than usual. Worth a look.
Marx wrote that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. He never anticipated environmentalism, which skips straight to farce every time.