NIMBYism and the Garbage Barge from Hell

Steven Hayward

July 1, 2002

The late Malcom Muggeridge once explained why he resigned as editor of the British satire magazine Punch. The real world, he said, had become so absurd that it was no longer possible to do satire. Too many events these days spoof themselves without comment. As a satirist, Muggeridge said, you pick up the morning paper and "you’re totally defeated."

A recent new story in the Washington Post brings this insight vividly to life. The story begins in 1986: Ronald Reagan is in the White House, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at 1,750, and Duran-Duran is at the top of the pop charts. This was also the year that the Khian Sea, an ocean-going barge containing seven tons of ash from incinerated household garbage, set sail from Philadelphia to dispose of the ash in an overseas landfill.

Sixteen years later, the Khian Sea has returned to Philadelphia-with its original load of ash. Over the last 16 years the Khian Sea has 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.

During its Flying Dutchman odyssey around the world the ship was turned away from some ports at gunpoint, 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 even be 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.

What the Khian Sea episode teaches is that the NIMBY ("Not-In-My-Back-Yard") phenomenon has gone worldwide, aided, of course, by some rabble-rousing from Greenpeace, which made the Khian Sea as cause-celebre. One reason this absurd episode got carried to such length is that a similar episode on a smaller scale once galvanized the recycling movement. In the late 1980s TV news viewers were treated to nightly images of the infamous Mobro 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.) Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. He never anticipated environmentalism, which skips straight to farce every time.

Steven F. Hayward is F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center.