This story was originally published in Newsday on March 23, 1997.
EXACTLY 10 YEARS AGO yesterday, a tugboat named the Break of Dawn left New York Harbor, towing a barge full of Long Island trash.
Destination: a fertile farm field down south.
Instead, it sailed into a storm of controversy that spotlighted Long Island as the center of the nation's garbage crisis.
By the time it had finished its two-month, 6,000-mile trek, the garbage barge had become an international sensation, grabbing headlines across the globe. Long before Joey Buttafuoco became Long Island's most irrestistible punchline, the barge was our very own national laughingstock, the butt of jokes for cartoonists, comedians and late-night talk-show host Johnny Carson.
But beneath the one-liners was a sobering reality: The nation was heading for a garbage crisis, and Long Island's bargeful of banana peels and disposable diapers had become the ultimate symbol of it. Though the trash-steeped adventures of that unsightly scow have faded from most people's memories, they still resonate today in how Long Islanders think about that most mundane of commodities - our daily trash. --
About a week into the barge episode, I was in the kitchen sipping my morning coffee when a Newsday editor called. "Please come into the office right away," he said frantically. "We need you to find the garbage barge."
I remember thinking: How can you lose a football field of garbage? And, why me? I was a cop reporter. But I hadn't been at Newsday long enough to balk at an assignment.
I worked the story from the newsroom all day, and at 8 p.m., I finally got the call I had been hoping for: A ship-to-shore operator had located the Break of Dawn about 200 miles off the South Carolina coast and had the tug's Cajun sea captain, Duffy St. Pierre, on the line.
I shouted into the phone, ending each question with a nervous "over," praying he wouldn't disconnect. He told me his next stop was New Orleans.
At sunrise, Newsday photographer Dick Kraus and I took off for Louisiana. I had learned that Lowell Harrelson, the Alabama businessman who had dreamed up the barge scheme, would also be there. We found him at a $29-a-night Day's Inn near the airport and he took us to where the garbage barge was - tied up to a sweet-gum tree on the backwaters of the Mississippi.
For the next two months, Kraus and I chased that barge half-way around the U.S. and back, with unforgettable stops in New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; Key West, Fla., and Atlantic City. Before it was over, the story that began in Islip, Long Island, broadened to include all the states south of New York along the eastern seaboard and around the Gulf of Mexico as well as the governments of Mexico, Cuba and Belize and our own State Department. --
Today, Long Island's garbage situation is very different - and, according to the experts, improved. But the embarrassment of the wandering barge stands as a painful and ominous reminder of just how controversial the issue of trash disposal can be.
"There is no doubt that the barge played a role in what we're doing today, but something would have happened anyway," said R.L. Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at SUNY Stony Brook. "It was about that time here on Long Island that we were being forced legislatively to end landfilling. A lot of people were beginning to say they didn't want incineration. So what's left? We were almost forced to begin looking at recycling as a major component."
Then as now, Nassau and Suffolk generated approximately 10,000 tons of trash a day, including yard clippings and construction and demolition debris. "Long Island's waste stream is about 3.5 million tons a year," Swanson said. "That's seven pounds per person a day, one of the highest waste-generation rates in the country."
The reason for the high figures is our lifestyle. "Most families have two workers, we have more meals in a box, and we're better educated. All you have to do is count the number of newspapers people have under their arms on a Sunday morning." --
During the barge chase, one of my editors was always after me to find even a scrap of Newsday poking out of the trash for a front-page photo. I can remember standing on a bobbing Coast Guard cutter in Key West, battling waves of nausea, binoculars in hand, as I scanned in vain for a glimpse of our newspaper.
I wasn't accustomed to nautical reporting. Grisly murder scenes were one thing, but taking notes on a rocking boat was something else. I'll never forget my first interview with Duffy and the crew in the galley of the Break of Dawn. I got so sick I asked Duffy if we could finish the interview standing outside the head so I could run in and puke every few minutes.
Finally, after being turned away from every port, the barge headed home to New York in May with Kraus and me in swift pursuit. We rented a speed boat and located the tug a few miles off the Jersey coast. We were in eight-foot swells, but we made it. When big-hearted Duffy saw us bouncing around in a 24-foot boat, he took pity and invited us aboard. Kraus almost got his legs chopped off trying to jump from the small speed boat onto the tug with 50 pounds of camera equipment hanging around his neck.
By dusk, we were sailing into New York Harbor with the Manhattan skyline twinkling in front of us. The harbor master told us city officials were trying to get a court order to bar the tug.
That was the last straw for Duffy. Tired and frustrated by his 6,000-mile ordeal, "court order" were not the words he wanted to hear. "They'll have to have gunboats to stop me," he said.
AFTER TWO MONTHS of wandering around the Atlantic and the Gulf, the barge nobody wanted wasn't welcome back home either. In 1987, Long Island was under state order to close all its landfills by 1990, and towns were up in arms over what to do. At that time, 80 percent of our trash was landfilled, 13 percent was carted off the Island, 6 percent was incinerated, and about 1 percent was recycled.
Today, those figures have shifted significantly: The landfilling of raw municipal garbage has gone to zero, and all the landfills are closed except Brookhaven and Islip, which accept about 220 tons of only ash a year. The incinerators - in Glen Cove, Long Beach and Islip - have either been closed or replaced with waste-to-energy plants. Now the bulk of Long Island's trash is either incinerated or hauled to outside landfills.
According to figures compiled by Swanson's institute, about 4,500 tons of trash are burned each day, about 2,750 tons recycled and 2,750 tons landfilled off of Long Island. He estimated that the recycling percentage would go even higher this year.
"That's a significant change in ten years," Swanson said. "If you consider that in 1987 we had virtually no recycling going on. If you look today at both the commercial and municipal sectors, we are recycling somewhere between thirty-seven and thirty-nine percent of our waste stream. That's higher than most places."
Still, as Long Island looks toward the future, we can expect the problems of cost control and enforcement to be ongoing, especially with landfilling still the cheapest way to get rid of garbage. In a recent interview, Anthony Cava, regional solid and hazardous materials engineer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, took issue with critics who tout landfills and say recycling is expensive and unnecessary. "Recycling may not be an economic advantage," he said. "But if you don't do it, the cost to society long-term may be much greater."
Experts agree that the biggest uncertainty in Long Island's garbage picture is New York City's recently announced closure of the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill: Ironically, a decade after New York refused to help with our trash crisis, the city is now asking us to help with theirs. Several Long Island towns have already received invitations to bid for contracts to incinerate the Fresh Kills trash - some 13,000 tons a day. --
I got to see a lot of that garbage float past the tug in the spring of '87, when Kraus and I were living onboard with Duffy and the crew. It stank a lot more than the musty-smelling garbage-barge trash, which had been washed over by salt water so many times in sea storms that a rabbi could have proclaimed it kosher.
Living on the tug - and being the only woman aboard - was an adventure in itself. David Soto, Duffy's first mate, gave me his cabin, which opened onto a small bathroom with a rusty stall shower. In those pre-floppy-disk days, I wrote stories for the next day's paper on a portable computer that got swapped each day for a different one that Newsday sent out by boat.
My most vivid memories are of Duffy at the stove whipping up his beloved Cajun recipes, even though the crew hated his cooking. "Duffy always makes beans and something or something and beans," Soto would mutter. After dinner, we'd sit around the table and listen to Desmond Bowman, the ship's engineer and a native of the Bahamas, talk in his sing-song voice about his adventures at sea. Some evenings, police from the harbor patrol would stop by for a cup of coffee.
There were celebrities, too. One morning as I finished breakfast, I glanced up at a porthole and saw Phil Donohue climbing around on top of the trash. The barge had become a harbor tourist attraction.
FITTINGLY, THE GARBAGE barge - whose official name is the Mobro 4000 - and the tug that lugged it into the national consciousness are out of the garbage business today. The barge has spent the last 10 years transporting cargo from Nantucket to Nigeria and is currently in the Dominican Republic; in 1995, it survived a near-sinking in a Bahamian hurricane. As for the Break of Dawn, it has stayed closer to its home port of Louisiana, doing mostly oil-rig work out in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the men behind the barge venture still have a hand in the garbage business. Lowell Harrelson, the free-wheeling Alabama businessman who dreamed up the barge plan, has returned to his general-contracting business, but does some landfill brokering on the side. Thomas Hroncich, the former Islip Town environmental officer who teamed up with Harrelson to launch the barge deal, now works as a solid-waste manager in Cape May, N.J. Thomas Gesuale, the Dix Hills man who organized the money and the backers, still operates Review Avenue Enterprises in Queens, where theMobro 4000 was loaded and launched.
Then there were the silent partners who were uncovered later when the barge funding came under the scrutiny of the State Task Force on Organized Crime and the FBI. An investigation showed that three of the five backers had ties to the mob. The most famous, Salvatore Avellino, was described as a member of the Luchese crime family; he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in 1994 in connection with the 1989 East Northport murders of two men who had agreed to testify against the cartel in civil racketeering suits. Avellino was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Gesuale says he had no knowledge of mob involvement in the barge deal, and Harrelson says that if he ever met Avellino, he wasn't aware of it.
Two weeks ago, the infamous tugboat was docked inconspicuously in Mobile, Ala., a few minutes from Harrelson's office. But he had no plans to visit. Too many bad memories, he said.
Soto, now 49, and Bowman are still on board. St. Pierre is off somewhere in Africa but still lives in New Orleans.
"I'm the captain of the tug now," Soto said in a recent interview. "I've always looked back on it with fond memories. All the media attention. That was kind of interesting."
But Harrelson looks back on the scow voyage as an embarrassing low-water mark. "It was probably one of the most misunderstood ventures that I've ever run into," he said. "But I'd like to think there was some good that came out of it." --
As for me, the end of the barge story put me at the top of Islip's landfill where on a crisp September day, after being reduced to ash in a Brooklyn incinerator, the Mobro 4000's beleaguered load was finally, mercifully, laid to rest.