They say you can’t go home again. But for a garbage barge called Mobro 4000, after months of sailing through much of the Northern Hemisphere and capturing the attention of the world, home was the only place it could go.
The saga of the “world’s best-known garbage scow” touched the borders of several countries. Yet at its heart, it is a New York story. Using contemporary local news sources from 1987 found in our Brooklyn Collection clippings files, a profound game of political hot potato reveals itself. The fight over what to do with 3,168 tons of garbage drew borough presidents, county commissioners, attorneys general, and the New York State Supreme Court into its wake. The garbage barge story lingers as a cautionary tale about the waste society produces and it ultimately emboldened recycling and environmental activists. Closer to home, it’s a story of a metropolitan area at war with itself, neighbors litigating against neighbors.
The Mobro’s ill-fated odyssey from and to New York originated in Alabama. An Alabama entrepreneur named Lowell Harrelson saw a business opportunity in the fact that landfills in dense urban areas were nearing capacity. Howell and his New York partners (some with links to the Lucchese crime family) devised a plan to load a barge with 3,168 tons of New York City and Long Island trash from the Islip landfill and bring it to North Carolina. By the time the barge got to Morehead City, North Carolina, a local news team had broadcast an image of a bed pan among the barge’s cargo which set off a panic about the Mobro carrying hazardous medical waste- and from New York City of all places (even though a majority of the garbage was realistically from Long Island). The barge was ordered out of North Carolina and its reputation preceeded it to every port it tried to unload at. For months the Mobro was rejected by every state between Florida and Texas, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Belize. Finally, after months of headlines, jokes on late night TV, and outcry from environmentalists, the “infamous homeless garbage barge” sailed back to New York. (For a fun look at the barge's time at sea, check out this animated reading of Jonah Winter's Here Comes the Garbage Barge!).
Despite inspections that proved there was no hazardous waste on board, the barge had become politically toxic and no one in New York wanted to touch it. The original plan was for the barge to dock in Long Island City, Queens and its trash would be trucked back to Islip, whence it came. Queens Borough President Claire Shulman wasn’t having it.
In the picture above, Shulman succeeded in getting a court order literally out to the boat. The New York State Supreme Court in Queens ruled that the barge could not dock in Queens. “We don’t know what’s in it,” she told the Daily News, “It’s been sitting in the hot sun for weeks. It probably contains tropical insects and vermin.” She felt that trucking all that trash through Queens to get to Long Island put Queens residents at risk, especially since most of the garbarge wasn't theirs anyway. This led to a feud between Shulman and Islip supervisor Frank Jones over whose trash was even on the barge.
“If she wants to get porky about it, we’ll identify how much of it is hers and we’ll leave it on the dock for her,” Jones sniped in Newsday.
Schulman fired back, “All the while it was in the Caribbean, it was Islip garbage. Once it neared New York, it all of a sudden became New York garbage.”
“What keeps the barge afloat is a political deadlock over which-locality-would-have-to-give-up what to accept a privately-owned heap of trash into a public landfill or incinerator,” wrote Shirley E. Perlman and Peter Marks in NY Newsday in June of 1987.
Meanwhile, the barge and its slip were anchored in Gravesend Bay off of Brooklyn for months, attracting flies and quite a few Mobro-gawking tourists. Agency after agency inspected it for toxins. “So far, the rotting refuse has been inspected by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the city Health Department, and the Sanitation Department,” the Daily News reported. No reports of hazardous waste were reported but the barge was associated with toxicity in the public’s mind.
All eyes were now on Brooklyn. The state’s new plan was to burn all of the trash in a city-run incinerator in Gravesend and then bury the ash in Islip.
Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) obtained a temporary restraining order against the plan to burn and bury the trash as residents and the local fireman’s union raised concerns about the toxins that thousands of tons of burning garage might put into the Brooklyn air. After the earlier court case brought by Queens’ Borough President, the barge was back in New York court in a case that pitted Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden and NYPIRG against the city and state of New York. Barry Commoner, a national leader of the early environmental movement, testified for the Brooklyn team. “The city’s proposal to burn trash in a very old incinerator would turn that trash into toxic material,” Commoner told the Daily News in July of 1987, referring to the incinerator as a “dioxin factory.”
In early August of 1987, New York Supreme Court Judge Dominic Ladato ruled that the garbage could be burned in Brooklyn. Borough President Golden didn’t appeal the ruling but told Newsday, “I do not believe this is a defeat. Because of my lawsuit, it came to light that despite New York City and New York State’s claim to the contrary, the taxpayers of this city were going to have to foot the bill for burning private garbage.” This was not the end of Mobro-related litigation. In September of 1987, New Jersey sued New York for a garbage slick that New Jersey officials alleged floated from Gravesend Bay and ended up on Jersey Shore beaches. Later, an additional case would be brought by officials on Long Island due to the toxins found in the trash’s ash before it was buried in Islip.
In total the barge sat in the water off of Brooklyn for three months. Our clippings files of local newspapers from the time illuminate the breathless pace the papers covered every development related to the barge. Much of the coverage has an undercurrent of cynicism about how local politicians handled the garbage stalemate. One headline read, "Pure Trash: The politicians pick up- but rarely deliver," and accused Howard Golden and other local politicians of grandstanding instead of working to solve problems together. Sydney H. Schanberg, a writer for Newsday, saw the barge as a stand in for many issues plaguing the New York area, seeing the reaction of politicians in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island as one that “applies to the homeless, to prison, to mental health clinics…Put them…in somebody else’s neighborhood, not mine.”
The media frenzy amplified a very real conversation about waste in America but it also kept the association of the Mobro’s load with toxic waste alive. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of the barge was that much of what it carried turned out to be recyclable paper and cardboard products that ended up going up in smoke on Bay 41st St on Gravesend Bay. The absurd and epic tale of the garbage barge has been immortalized by TV specials, national news, and even Johnny Carson's jokes. But for a local look at the Mobro's final months in New York Harbor, the Brooklyn Collection clippings files from 1987 offer a unique look at Metropilitian New York struggling to take out its trash.