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#5010: The full story of the Khian Sea and the Gonaives ash mountain (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By JERRY SCHWARTZ
PHILADELPHIA, Sept 3 (AP) -- Orange rinds, beer bottles, day-old
newspapers. Junk mail, aluminum foil, chicken bones. Cigarette butts, old
shoes, dead batteries. Coffee grinds, half-eaten hot dogs, tin cans.
It was trash, like all trash, the refuse of everyday life collected
door-to-door and trucked to an incinerator in Philadelphia's Roxborough
The ashes, like all ashes, would be carted away, into oblivion -- or at
least into New Jersey.
Except it didn't happen that way.
In 1986, 15,000 tons of ash were packed onto a ship, the Khian Sea, for
disposal. But at one port after another, the ship was turned away.
The Khian Sea roamed the Caribbean, sailed to Europe, Africa and Asia.
It changed its name -- twice -- was sold, switched its flag of registry,
dumped some of the ash on a third-world beach and the rest in the ocean.
Still, the odyssey of ash did not end. Even now, 14 years after the ship
set off from Philadelphia, a barge sits off the Florida coast, loaded with
2,050 cubic yards of Khian Sea ash that has returned to the United States
for final disposal.
Nobody wants it -- even though it is, says one lawyer, "the most tested
ash on the planet," and most everyone agrees it is no more toxic than ash
dumped into landfills every day.
In these last 14 years, countless Philadelphians who contributed waste
to the Khian Sea ash heap have preceded it into the ground; their garbage
has seen far more of the world than they ever did.
"This is not a typical story," says Ken Bruno, a 42-year-old
environmentalist who has followed the ash from his youth into middle age.
"It's peculiar, it's bizarre, it's weird."
What does it mean when we throw trash away, and it refuses to go?
If ever a time and a place were ripe for a debacle like the Khian Sea,
it was Philadelphia in the mid-1980s.
In 1985, you will recall, police dropped explosives on a house occupied
by the black separatist group MOVE, igniting a fire that killed 11 people
and destroyed 61 homes.
The city flirted with bankruptcy. In 1986, city and suburban transit
workers went on strike, and municipal workers walked out for 20 days,
leaving trash piled high.
But the city had a trash crisis even when workers were on the job. Ash
was piling up at an alarming rate. Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina and
Georgia landfills had refused it; nobody wanted to be Philadelphia's ash
Joseph Paolino & Sons had signed a $6 million contract to take the ash
away, but the company kept getting doors slammed in its corporate face.
Finally, it hired Amalgamated Shipping Corp. -- operator of the Khian
Sea, a 17-year-old, 466-foot rust bucket registered in Liberia, its name
pronounced like cayenne pepper -- to dump the ash on a man-made island in
the Bahamas, where Amalgamated was based. Loaded with 14,855 tons of ash,
the Khian Sea set off Sept. 5, 1986.
But before the ship arrived, the Bahamian government announced it had
not given permission to take the waste. Instantly, the Khian Sea was
transformed into the Flying Dutchman of debris.
It returned to the United States, perhaps to determine its next move.
Then it took off again on its abortive journey:
The Dominican Republic.
The Netherlands Antilles.
It was turned away again and again, even as the manifest was changed to
make the cargo more appealing -- from "incinerator ash" to "general cargo"
to "bulk construction material."
By the time the Khian Sea reached Gonaives, Haiti, on Dec. 31, 1987, the
ash was described as "top soil fertilizer," and it seemed it had found a
resting place; a contract had been signed with two brothers of Col.
Jean-Claude Paul, a corrupt leader of the Presidential Guard.
But there was clamor from Greenpeace and local activists. The Haitian
government stepped in, but not before 4,000 tons of ash, a little more than
a quarter of the cargo, had been unloaded on a beach adjacent to a dock.
A representative of Amalgamated, traveling aboard the Khian Sea, stepped
ashore to announce the ash was safe. "We are not sick, there is no smell
and there are no flies," Robert Dowd said.
Then he took some ash and popped it into his mouth.
"See, it's edible," he said. "No danger."
The Haitian government was not convinced. It ordered the crew to reload
the ash and depart. The ship departed, all right, but left the ash on the
Next stop was Philadelphia; the idea was to find a place for the
remaining ash nearby. But while the ship was anchored in the Delaware
River, fire destroyed the pier. The ship took off again, violating a Coast
Guard order to stay put because its radar and sonar were not working and
its hull was covered with barnacles.
On Aug. 2, 1988, the Khian Sea put in at Yugoslavia for repairs. Except
it was no longer the Khian Sea -- it was now the Felicia, it was sailing
under the Honduran flag and it had been sold to another company, Romo
Shipping. (Romo and Amalgamated had the same president, and the sale price
In November 1988, more than two years after it first left Philadelphia,
the ship -- now called the Pelicano -- arrived in Singapore.
Its holds were empty.
Ash? What ash?
Years later, the captain of the Khian Sea/Felicia/Pelicano would admit
in court that the ash had been dumped in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
The rest remained in Haiti, sitting uncovered on a beach where children
Ken Bruno had gone to Haiti for Greenpeace in 1988. He found the mound
of ash, 8 feet high, 10 feet wide, 100 feet long. Amid all the black stuff,
Bruno saw pieces of glass and aluminum foil; he reached into the pile,
pulled out a shred of newspaper and read a classified ad for a used car,
with the phone number in Philadelphia's 215 area code.
Lighter particles were carried away by the wind and water. Haitians
complained their goats were dying.
How dangerous is this stuff?
Greenpeace commissioned an analysis of the ash and nearby soil by the
University of Exeter in England, and it found lead, cadmium and other heavy
metals, along with dioxin.
"It was toxic," Bruno says. "Especially because it was lying out in the
open, exposed to the elements and to human beings."
Patrick O'Neill is Philadelphia's senior environmental attorney; he
started work for the city in 1987 and has labored on the Khian Sea case
ever since. He dismisses Greenpeace's claims as alarmist, pointing to tests
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental
agencies from Pennsylvania and Florida.
"This is the most tested ash on the planet," he says. "It's not toxic,
it's not hazardous. Even as municipal ash goes, it's relatively harmless."
The trouble started, O'Neill says, when "Greenpeace politicized it, and
once they did that, it became impossible to send it anywhere."
Bruno agrees the stigma attached to the ash far surpasses its toxicity.
This is not nuclear waste, he says.
"It's more the simple injustice of it happening," he says, "and no U.S.
official at any level saying, `We're sorry, we'll clean it up' -- as they
would have done if this had happened in England or France."
So Greenpeace started a campaign to shame Philadelphia into paying for
proper disposal of the ash piled in Haiti. News conferences were held,
letters written. Khian Sea ash was sent to city officials in jars and
Forget it, Philadelphia said. This is the contractor's problem. The city
has no legal responsibility, O'Neill says.
Greenpeace even asked the U.S. military to bring the ash back when it
returned from helping restore democracy in Haiti in the early 1990s.
"I think they giggled," Bruno says.
Enter an unlikely hero: New York City.
New York, of course, had had its own unfortunate experience with
recalcitrant refuse -- the infamous gar-barge, the Mobro 4000, which
wandered the East Coast, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico for two
months in 1987, looking for a home for 3,186 tons of trash. Eventually, its
cargo was incinerated and dumped in a Long Island landfill.
In 1996, to end mob involvement in the city's garbage carting industry,
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani established a Trade Waste Commission.
So when a company called Eastern Environmental Services applied to do
business in New York, the commission investigated -- and found links
between Eastern and the now-defunct Joseph Paolino & Sons, Philadelphia's
contractor. And the commission learned about the ash in Haiti.
The commission issued an ultimatum: If Eastern wanted to haul trash in
New York, it had to deal with the Khian Sea ash.
Three years ago, Eastern agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of
transporting the ash, and to find a place in its landfills for it. But the
deal expired. In a new deal, Philadelphia agreed to kick in $50,000.
Earlier this year, what was left of the ash departed Haiti. By this
time, Eastern had been absorbed by trash behemoth Waste Management, which
intends to put the ash in one of its landfills in the South. So it sits off
Florida on a barge, the Santa Lucia, and it waits.
Georgia doesn't want it. Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin says the
ash might have been exposed to swine fever in Haiti. He fears it could
imperil Georgia's hog industry, even though the U.S. Department of
Agriculture ordered the ash fumigated before it left Haiti.
Florida doesn't want it. One local official even objected to the ash
sitting in the water near his town.
Louisiana doesn't want it. State Sen. Willie Mount sponsored a
resolution to ban the ash; it passed 25-1.
"If there's no problem," Mount asked a reporter for The Philadelphia
Inquirer, "then why doesn't Philadelphia just take it back?"
Philadelphia no longer incinerates its garbage. That stopped in 1987.
Instead, it sends trash directly to landfills.
Which is pretty much the way the rest of us deal with our trash. The
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates Americans will generate 222
million tons of municipal solid waste this year and send 119 million tons
of it to landfills.
Not that it is welcomed with open arms. Last year, Virginia tried to
limit access to its landfills, particularly to New York City, but a federal
judge refused to allow it.
"If everybody had to dispose of all their waste within a mile of their
home, the incentive to reduce it would be far, far greater. If you could
send it to the moon, you would have no reason to reduce it," Bruno says.
"And unfortunately, to some people, Haiti is like the moon."
But we're not sending ash to Haiti anymore.
The voyage of the Khian Sea helped spur passage in 1990 of the Basel
Convention, which regulates export of toxic wastes. Although the United
States has not ratified the treaty, "implicitly, we abide by it," says
Allan Gerlat, editor of Waste News magazine.
There is an alternative to landfills. According to the EPA, about a
third of all municipal solid waste is recycled.
And this, Bruno suspects, is what happened to the Khian Sea itself.
Nobody seems to know for sure, but the ship that sailed the seven seas, in
search of a resting place for the cremains of Philadelphia's detritus, has
most likely been recycled.
"I think it is probably scrap metal in a car somewhere in India," Bruno
says. "I doubt it exists."