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Garbage Barge Begins Lengthy Trek (March 22, 1987)

The Voyage of the MobroToday in Odd History, an unassuming barge called the Mobro 4000 began a 6,000 mile voyage, looking for a port that would take its cargo--nearly 3,200 tons of trash. With its escort, the tugboat Break of Day, the Mobro would sail along the coast of the Eastern and Southern United States, down into the Gulf of Mexico and through the Bahamas, before finally returning to New York, still bearing its load of garbage.

The saga of the Mobro began when the city of Islip, New York realized that its landfills were, well, full. In Morehead City, North Carolina, however, a new plan was afoot to turn garbage into methane fuel. City officials graciously agreed to accept Islip's refuse into the program. But sometime before the Mobro arrived, a vicious rumor began to spread. Sixteen of the bundles of trash aboard contained hospital gowns, syringes, and diapers. This toxic material apparently contaminated the entire load, as one bad apple will spoil the barrel. State officials in North Carolina refused to accept the Mobro's cargo. The barge sat offshore for 11 days, before it, and the Break of Dawn, lifted anchor and set off for Lousiana.

Louisiana was the home of the Mobro, the Break of Dawn, and the Mobro's captain, Duffy St. Pierre. The trio was not welcomed back with open arms, though. The MobroLouisiana, which suffers from environmental problems of its own, declined to shoulder any of New York's. The Mobro was asked to move on.

From Lousiana, the Mobro went West, deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. As garbage barges are not made for trans-Atlantic crossings, it could hardly have gone anywhere else. Mexico, though, was no more willing to take New York's refuse than Louisiana had been. And the Mexican government was not as polite as the American cities the Mobro had visited had been. The Mexican Navy met the barge in the Yucutan Channel, forbidding it to enter Mexican waters. Belize did not call out the navy, but it did refuse to let the Mobro dock. The Bahamas wouldn't take the trash, either. In all, the Mobro was rejected by six states and three countries, before giving up and going back to New York.

Lowell Harrelson, who actually owned the garbage, was in New York, trying to broker a deal with the local authorities. He planned for the Mobro to dock near Queens, where trucks would collect the trash and carry it back to Islip. His scheme might have worked, but he had forgotten to consult with Claire Shulman, the President of the Borough of Queens. Shulman refused to let the barge, or its cargo, into her neighborhood. She obtained a temporary restraining order that forced the Mobro to stay at sea. And so there it sat, anchored just off the shores of Brooklyn, steaming in the early summer heat, while the battle over its cargo moved into the courts. In July, the federal government granted the Mobro a federal anchorage in New Jersey. Its faithful companion, the Break of Dawn, escorted it to its new home, before slipping over to Bayonne, New Jersey for repairs, and then sailing back to New Orleans. Finally, in October, the court challenges ended; an agreement had been forged. The Mobro made another trip to Brooklyn, where its cargo was incinerated. All that remained of the most famous load of garbage in history was 430 tons of ash, all of which was buried at the landfill in Islip.

Map of the Mobro's voyage from Talking Trash, NOT!.
Picture of the Mobro at sea from Garbage: Queens' Trashy Tale, from the Queens Tribune

The Daily Bleed: A Calendar Better than Boiled Coffee!
Garbage: Queens' Trashy Tale, from the Queens Tribune
Lives of the Saints: The Loneliest Skipper, from New York Magazine
The Louisiana Environmental Tax Scorecard

More on garbage in New York:
Fat of the LandFat of the Land: The Garbage Of New York--The Last Two Hundred Years, by Benjamin Miller.
Written by a policy advisor from New York's Department of Sanitation, this surprisingly readable book traces the history of trash in America's most densely populated city.


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