World's Most Unwanted Garbage: Cargo of the Khian Sea.

Khian Sea barge docked in Florida in June 2002 (Image: Nature)

Almost by definition, garbage is stuff nobody wants. You usually have to pay someone to take it off your hands. Sometimes, if the garbage is really unwelcome or it just has nowhere to go, a company will pay another country to accept it. That was the case with the trash aboard the Khian Sea [wiki], a 466-foot garbage barge owned by Joseph Paolino and Sons.

On September 5, 1986, it left Philadelphia, carrying 14,855 tons of incinerated household garbage (essentially just ash). The city, desperately short of landfill space, had earlier tried to get rid of the garbage by paying neighboring states to take it, but they were facing their own landfill crisis. So the barge headed for a manmade island in the Bahamas owned by the Amalgamated Shipping Company, which had agreed to take the garbage. On its way to the islands, however, the Bahamian government got wind of the deal and refused to give the barge permission to dock. Forced to turn back, the barge tried to unload the ash in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and the Netherlands Antilles. But everyone was suspicious of the garbage, figuring it had to be highly toxic.

In 1987 the Khian Sea managed to dump 4,000 tons of it on a beach in Haiti, telling the government it was "fertilizer." The barge then headed east for Africa, trying to discharge the rest in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal. They wouldn't have it. Like the Little Engine That Could in the children's book, the barged puffed its way across the ocean to the faraway ports in Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. None of those countries wanted it, either. More than once, the barge was refused entry to a port at the barrel of the harbormaster's gun. Even renaming the barge the Felicia in the hopes of sneaking it into a port unnoticed didn't work. Neither did selling the barge to a new owner.

The thing that did work was dumping the remaining 10,000 or so tons of ash into the sea in November 1988 when no one was looking. When the barge arrived in Singapore empty, officials got suspicious. In 1993 two executives at the company that owned the barge were sent to prison for the stunt.

But that's not the end of the story. In 1996, responding to the outcry of environmentalists, the U.S. government ordered the ash that had been unloaded in Haiti to be picked up. A new barge, the Santa Lucia, collected the ash in 2000 and docked in Martin County, Florida. Eastern Environmental Services, which was linked to the now-defunct Joseph Paolino and Sons and therefore responsible for the ash, tried to convince Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Broward County in Florida to take the stuff, but neither wanted it. Like everyone else, they thought it was contaminated.

In 2002 Glenn Henderson, a columnist for the Palm Beach Post, went aboard the barge to see what the ash looked like. He reported:

"Squeezing between multitudes of spider webs, I peered down into the 'hold' and couldn't believe my eyes. Australian pines were everywhere, some as tall as 10 feet. There were dandelions, weeds with small blue-and-yellow blossoms, patches of seemingly manicured grass, and tall brown weeds resting in layers across grayish piles punctuated by pure-white chunks of who-knows-what. And there was a hibiscus plant with pretty pink blooms."

Soon after, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, city of Philadelphia, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and U.S. Biosystems all tested the ash and determined it to be nonhazardous. Finally, it was disposed of at the Mountain View Reclamation landfill in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, just miles from its point of departure 16 years earlier.

The article above is reprinted from The World's Worst: A Guide to the Most Disgusting, Hideous, Inept, and Dangerous People, Places, and Things on Earth by Mark Frauenfelder, the co-founder of the popular blog Boing Boing.

In the introduction to his book, Mark wrote that "Bookstore shelves are lined with volumes dedicated to the finest things in the world: the most exquisite dining experiences, the greatest athletes ... While it's good and proper to bestow honor upon those individuals and items that shine at the top of the heap, the truth is that the really entertaining stuff is taking place well below."

And how true that is: The World's Worst is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long while!

Get it here:

Previously on Neatorama: Worst Molasses-related Disaster: Great Boston Flood of 1919

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Seriously, if it was just ash why not just dump it in the sea? I know, that sounds awful.

Speaking of landfill crises ... how comes we never hear of landfill problems anymore? This was huge news in the 80s and early 90s.
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