Barge packed with garbage became 3,000-ton floating hot potato

Posted 7/6/18

Americans love trashy stories.Reporters from national media outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post came down a few months ago looking for the scoop on the Parrish "poop …

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Barge packed with garbage became 3,000-ton floating hot potato

Posted

Americans love trashy stories.

Reporters from national media outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post came down a few months ago looking for the scoop on the Parrish "poop train." 

Febreze, seeing a prime publicity opportunity, rushed down to deliver free samples and document the company's good deed with a "Breathe Happy, Parrish" YouTube video.

Twenty years ago, the nation was captivated by another story of New York's waste getting stuck in the South.

In 1987, a tugboat hauling a barge topped with 3,100 tons of garbage spent several weeks at sea after an Alabama businessman's plan backfired.

"Sometimes I wonder how I could have been so stupid, how I could have caused a fury like this," Lowell Harrelson told The New York Times in May 1987. "But then I still cannot see the flaws in the plan, except for the psychological problem that people have with garbage."

Harrelson, a building contractor from Bay Minette, intended to transport the garbage from Long Island to a landfill in North Carolina. 

He hoped to make money both from disposing of the trash for Long Island's landfill, which was nearly full, and from converting the methane gas that the waste would eventually generate into electricity. 

Harrelson's problems started when a TV news reporter in North Carolina broke the story of the barge's arrival on April Fool's Day. 

A state environmental official was sent down to inspect the contents of the barge and spotted a bedpan. North Carolina officials refused to accept a load of garbage that could contain hazardous materials.   

The "Gar-barge" as it was dubbed by the press was eventually rejected by six states (including Harrelson's own Alabama), as well as Mexico, Belize and the Bahamas. 

"By that time, we had so much bad publicity; they were saying Jimmy Hoffa was buried in the barge, and it was carrying nuclear waste, and you-name-it, so they didn't want it. They wanted us to get out," tugboat captain Duffy St. Pierre told one reporter. 

During a brief stopover off the coast of Key West, agents of the Environmental Protection Agency climbed aboard and determined that nothing on the barge was hazardous. 

The most logical solution seemed to be taking the garbage back to the location from whence it came. 

However, the only dock suitable for unloading it was in Queens, and officials there didn't want the contents of the "Gar-barge" being carted through its streets.

'We don't know what's in it. It's been sitting in the hot sun for weeks. It probably contains tropical insects and vermin," Queens Borough President Clare Shulman said. 

A temporary restraining order was granted, and the barge anchored near Brooklyn while the case made its way through the courts.

By this time, St. Pierre and the tugboat's crew had traveled over 6,000 miles.

The fight went on for two more months before all sides agreed that the garbage should be incinerated in Brooklyn and the resulting 400 tons of ash were dumped at the landfill in Islip, Long Island — where it was going to go before Harrelson intervened.

The trip reportedly cost Harrelson $1 million, and disposing of the trash was approximately  $80,000, according to one New York Times article.

The saga of the "Gar-barge" has been turned into a song, a Futurama episode and at least two children's books. 

"All That Trash: The Story of the 1987 Garbage Barge and Our Problem with Stuff" is now available at Jasper Public Library.


Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.