Sixteen years after it left Philadelphia, what remains of some of the world's most notorious, most traveled and least wanted trash is coming home to Pennsylvania.
Twenty tons at a time, eight times a day, incinerator ash generated from curbside pickups in Philadelphia a generation ago is being disgorged from truck-mounted containers atop an 80-foot-high landfill near this village in south-central Pennsylvania's dairy country.
It's only about 120 miles from Philadelphia, but this infamous ash took a much longer -- and much stranger -- route than the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81.
In the mid-1980s, a landfill capacity crisis forced the city of Philadelphia to find an alternative way to dispose of ash from one of its now-defunct municipal trash incinerators. Its solution was to contract with a firm that found a shipping company willing to take the ash to a manmade island in the Bahamas.
Thus, in September 1986, the cargo ship Khian Sea left Philadelphia with 14,855 tons of ash in its hold. While en route, though, the Bahamian government denied permission to dock, and the ship embarked on a voyage of the damned. Labeled a pariah by environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the ship over the next two years was spurned by at least 11 countries on four continents.
Late in 1987, armed with a signed contract for the ash to be used as fertilizer, the crew managed to offload an estimated 4,000 tons of the stuff on a dockside beach in Haiti. But then public protests forced the Khian Sea to leave with its remaining cargo.
Finally, in November 1988, the ship arrived in Singapore -- without its ash. Along the way, the ship had been sold, twice renamed and twice turned away from ports at gunpoint. The crew also nearly mutinied, and the engineer, who threatened to scuttle the vessel, was thrown in jail in Yugoslavia.
As for the remaining ash, it had been dumped illegally into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For that transgression, and for lying about it to a federal grand jury and judge, two shipping company officials received federal prison terms.
Meanwhile, from late 1987 to 2000, the rest of the ash languished on the beach in Haiti. Then Haiti, the U.S. State Department, the city of Philadelphia and the New York City Trade Waste Commission agreed to ship it back to the United States. The New York agency had wrested an escrow fund for this very purpose from a company linked to Philadelphia's original contractor in return for a city trash-removal contract. That company was eventually bought by Waste Management Inc.
After the ash arrived in Florida, further problems developed. At least five states and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma refused to take it, and so it lay in a barge along a canal in Stuart, Fla. Waste Management's 2001 plan to incinerate it again and dump it in its Pompano, Fla., landfill was rejected by Broward County. Finally, earlier this year, the Pennsylvania and Florida environmental protection departments agreed to Waste Management's plan to cart it to one of the company's Pennsylvania landfills.
Last month, the first of the ash was removed by crane from the barge and deposited in cargo containers, which were sealed and sent by truck to Miami and then hauled by train to Hagerstown, Md., only 12 miles from Waste Management's landfill near here, called Mountain View Reclamation. The first loads began arriving by truck 10 days after leaving the barge.
"It was generated by Pennsylvanians, and we feel it's only proper that it should be disposed of in Pennsylvania," said Dennis Buterbaugh, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
But with Pennsylvania leading the nation in imported trash -- 12.6 million tons, or 47.3 percent of the total disposed there, last year -- some states clearly don't share Buterbaugh's view. Second in this dubious competition is Virginia, which last year imported 4.8 million tons, or 20 percent, of its disposed solid waste. Though both states decry the situation, federal courts have deemed it an interstate commerce issue that only Congress, not states, can address. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to review a federal appeals court decision nullifying 1999 Virginia laws restricting trash imports.
The Mountain View landfill accepts waste from about a 50-mile radius, which includes Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia as well as Pennsylvania. It is permitted to handle household trash, construction and demolition debris, heated biological waste, which comes from a Baltimore hospital, and incinerator waste, such as the Khian Sea ash.
The ash, at this point, has been minutely examined: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida and Pennsylvania environmental protection departments, the city of Philadelphia, the World Health Organization and an independent company, U.S. Biosystems Inc., have all analyzed it. Although it does contain trace elements of heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, it is not considered hazardous and is considered safe for deposit at the landfill.
In fact, two years of Florida sun and rain encased it in weeds, flowers and 10-foot-high Australian pines.
"We're of the opinion that if it got rained on for 12 years on a beach, anything still in it is not going to leach out," B.J. Roberts Jr., an Antrim Township, Pa., supervisor and landfill inspector, said at the landfill.
Some who live near the 516-acre landfill, which was begun during the late 1970s, aren't certain. "I don't understand why, if they wouldn't take it all over the world, it's okay to bring it here," said Rodney Eberly, who can see the landfill mounds from his Rabbit Road home.
But Clarence "Packman" Barnett Jr. said he doesn't understand such concerns. "There's nothing in it that would hurt anybody," Barnett said, taking a break from operating the 50-ton trash compactor he'd been using to pack the black, muck-like ash into the landfill. "It's nothing worse than household trash, which is what it probably was at one time."
Waste Management officials say the last of what Florida estimates to be 2,200 to 2,500 tons of ash will be buried in the landfill by next week.
At that point, Philadelphia will pay Waste Management $50,000. "We're happy that it's making its way into a properly permitted, environmentally safe landfill," said Patrick O'Neill, senior attorney for the city.
Still, that might not be the last Philadelphia hears of the Khian Sea ash: Florida is picking up the cost of shipping the ash to Pennsylvania, but the state may try to recoup that cost.
While no decisions have been made, Willie Puz, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, indicated that Waste Management, Philadelphia and the federal government could all be hearing from Florida DEP solicitors. "When the last ash goes into the landfill," he said, "it's not a close-the-book story."