Happy New Year, news junkies. Herewith early nominations for top news story of 1987, offered in the conviction that the time for such honor approaches. The real New Year, after all, begins on Labor Day, not Jan. 1.

The field is filled with worthy contenders, complete with memorable characters and incredible events. Consider the Iran-contra hearings, with Fawn and Ollie & Co., and Jim and Tammy Faye, and Gary and Donna. In less tumultuous times, each would rate as an almost certain winner.

Of many wondrous policy flips and flops, the most noteworthy involves Iran.

Turns out that those hated Iranians, our sworn enemies, fonts of international terrorism and practitioners of the art of hostage-taking, aren't so bad. Lots of moderates there and secret America- lovers, too. So the United States secretly shipped arms to Iran, in part because top White House strategists believed that Iran was losing its war with Iraq. This despite the nearly unanimous opinion of experts at the Defense and State departments and at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Then, when Iran failed to deliver U.S. hostages -- a matter of only incidental interest in the arms deals, according to the tale told the country by administration officials -- America began tilting toward Iraq, whose great benefactor had been the Soviet Union. U.S. reflagging of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf would protect Iraq's oil lifeline but also work to Iran's interest by keeping international sea lanes open. Thus, Iran's vital oil flow, upon which its war and other national undertakings including terrorism depend, would continue.

How's that for diplomatic sleight of hand and working at cross-purposes?

We've had high and low moments in sports, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Loud-mouth George Steinbrenner is in contention again for making even more of an ass of himself than usual as the ham-handed Yankees owner whose destructive behavior seems guaranteed to turn winners into losers. In cheering contrast is the classy manner in which modest Paul Molitor has been chasing Joe DiMaggio's perhaps imperishable 56-game hitting streak.

But, deserving as these are, they pale beside an epic sea saga finally completed. It rates this corner's choice as news story of the year.

On Monday, the barge Mobro 4000, towed by the tug Break of Day, docked in Bensonhurst, N.Y., near the Southwest Brooklyn incinerator. This brought to an end a 156-day odyssey covering 6,000 miles during which Mobro, the Flying Dutchman of barges, plied the waters from Long Island Sound into the Atlantic, through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and back into New York Harbor.

Along the way, Mobro attempted to discharge its cargo in North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Mexico, Belize and the Bahamas. At each port of call, Mobro's cargo was rejected. On she went, vainly in search of a final resting place.

She carried 3,186 tons of potential archeological treasure: original New York garbage whose contents, if preserved, would help future historians understand the nature of late 20th century urban life in America. This trove will be lost. Plans are to examine it for infectious waste, then recycle or incinerate it. The resulting ash will provide more footage at a landfill in Islip, New York.

Even standing alone, the saga of Mobro 4000 ranks as a great news story. But it doesn't stand alone. It symbolizes a greater story of the times, the factor that gives special stature among news events of 1987.

About 10 days before Mobro finally docked, vacationeers in New Jersey resort communities began noticing a disturbing, horrifying phenomenon as thousands of pill bottles, intravenous tubes, hypodermic needles and reportedly even body parts began washing up on beaches. Upon investigation, this turned out to be wastes from tons of hospital and household trash, apparently emanating like Mobro from New York, illegally dumped from an offshore garbage barge. The resulting garbage formed a slick about 50 miles long.

At the same time, dead dolphins began washing ashore on mid-Atlantic beaches in unprecedented numbers. The cause of death appears to be bacterial infection, and scientists are investigating to determine whether it stems from an unknown virus or toxic contamination.

So, when it comes to memorable news of the year, forget Iran-contra and other worldwide problems. Think about a society that can't even dispose of its own mess.