Worried about their aquifers, the New York Legislature passed a law in 1983 that banned new landfills from opening on Long Island and required existing Long Island landfills to close by 1990. By 1987, the town of Islip was feeling a little cornered.
At the same time, a Southerner from Louisiana named Lowell Harrelson, hemmed in by failed business plans, heard how methane could be produced from garbage and burned to create electricity.
With vague connections to the New York mafia, a man named Thomas Hroncich retired from his position as Islip Environmental Control Commissioner and became the owner of Waste Alternatives Inc., with the hopes that he could make a little money on Islip’s dilemma.
Duffy St. Pierre peacefully put in his time captaining Louisiana tugboats for Harvey Gulf and Marine, ignorant of the fact that he would soon be internationally famous and intimately familiar with New York’s garbage.
Armed with new ideas about waste, the indebted Louisiana entrepreneur Harrelson noticed Islip’s awkward condition and realized that, in Louisiana–in fact in most of the US–space was much more plentiful than on Long Island, and garbage could be piled into nice methane (and money) producing piles wherever people didn’t mind.
Islip was supposed to host an open bid for a solution to its waste issues. Not surprisingly, after the bid was twice postponed at very short notice, Islip announced that Hroncich’s company had been awarded the contract to make Islip’s garbage disappear. Unfortunately, it became evident that Hroncich’s company didn’t have a destination in mind.
Harrelson seized the opportunity. He contracted with Harvey Gulf to send Captain Duffy, on board the tug Break of Dawn, to push a barge to Islip and helpfully solve Hroncich (and Islip’s) troubles for thirty dollars a ton. Although waste hauling has had a reputation for territorialism, Hroncich didn’t mind: the town of Islip was paying him more than sixty dollars a ton to make the garbage go away. The men from Louisiana got the garbage.
Unfortunately, Harrelson had neglected to get anyone to agree in writing to accept Islip’s garbage. Money in hand and garbage in tow, he ordered Captain Duffy to stop at Morehead City, NC, where he thought he had an agreement with a private landfill to accept the garbage. North Carolina officials became very concerned about the idea of New York garbage sitting in their port and ending up in their landfills. They ordered Captain Duffy away.
Never fear, said Harrelson to Captain Duffy, he had a destination in Louisiana that was willing and able to accept the garbage. The barge was met in the Mississippi Delta by Louisiana State Police ordering it to out of their territory. Harrelson threatened to sue, citing the Interstate Commerce Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in the City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey. To which Louisiana Governor Edwin W Edwards famously expressed his determination by saying, “If we don’t have the legal authority, then we can’t line the National Guard on the banks of the river and shoot at them.” They were successful in turning the barge away.
In the ensuing months, Captain Duffy and the garbage pushed all over the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast, being ordered away like a pariah by North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, and Belize. Even New York tried to turn the garbage away. Ultimately, it was burned in Brooklyn.
Imagine yourself in New York in February of 1987: after filling your garbage can with empty packaging, used paper towels, food scraps, and some other oddities, you take it out to the street.
Now imagine that same garbage returning to you in June. You are outraged! How dare that garbage be your responsibility. It’s not yours at all. Sure you gathered it all in its pre-garbage state and it was your actions that turned it into garbage in the first place, and you did put it on the street corner to be picked-up by the sanitation workers, but none of this means you have any personal responsibility towards the same physical items four months later.
Such is the tricky game garbage plays with our ideas of personal responsibility. As children we are repeatedly taught to clean up our messes. As adults, we earn the disrespect of our communities if we don’t take care of our personal messes. But as communities, we have somehow come to agree that we can be absolved of responsibility for the garbage we produce. Put it in the can and it isn’t your fault any more.