The scent of plans for a pair of proposed waste transfer stations in
Queens are drifting over the borough and conjuring up memories of a barge bursting with
tons of garbage and a barge that sat anchored in the waters off Brooklyn, stranded
for months by court battles and political wranglings.
It was 1987. Claire Shulman was writing the intro to her Borough Hall
biography. Flushing neighbors firebombed a home destined for abandoned babies. Howard
Beach turned from a neighborhood into an incident, and our garbage came back to haunt us.
The MOBRO Barge left Long Island City in March 1987, loaded
with 3,186 tons of garbage from the metropolitan area. The barge, accompanied by the
tugboat 'Break of Dawn,' was headed to Morehead City, North Carolina, where it was slated
for use in an experiment which, if successful, would have turned the garbage into methane
En route to North Carolina, state officials discovered that 16 balls of
the garbage contained hospital dressing gowns, syringes and 'diaper-like material, deeming
the trash 'toxic.' Based on these findings, North Carolina refused to accept the garbage
anchoring the MOBRO off local shores for 11 days. The 'Break of Dawn' lifted anchor on the
twelfth day after North Carolina gave the barge what was dubbed a 'royal sendoff.'
The floating dump then headed to
Louisiana, where it was refused after it sat offshore for three days. On April 24, Mexican
officials sent their navy to the Yucatan Channel to prevent the 'garbage' from entering
Mexican waters. Three days later, it was rejected in Belize, British Honduras. With
nowhere to go, the MOBRO headed back to New York City, where Lowell Harrelson, the man who
owned the garbage, felt sure he could reach an agreement with local officials for disposal
of the trash.
What Harrelson encountered instead was the wrath and determination of
Claire Shulman, who refused to let the garbage travel by truck through the streets of
Queens. Harrison would later jokingly compare Shulman's determination to a 'few dozen
Queens' feisty first lady wasted no time seeking action by the courts to
prohibit the MOBRO from anchoring off Queens so that its contents could be trucked across
the borough to Islip, Long Island.
Borough President Claire Shulman speaks before a mass of
microphones after winning her battle to stop transport of trash on the 'garbarge' through
Queens. (L-R front) Nick Garaufis (now a federal judge), Shulman and (back) Lowell
Harrelson (center) huddles with his attorneys.
Shulman said she and her then counsel Nick Garaufis, the 'man
around' that Friday afternoon went, 'looking for a judge to issue a restraining order.
'I didn't want the garbage in Queens, since I had no idea what was in it,'
The pair found a judge Supreme Court Justice Linakos (now retired),
'who was at home cleaning her closets,' Shulman said.
'She is my heroine,' Shulman continued, 'she issued a temporary
restraining order which we served by hand that same day.'
Queens Supreme Court Justice Angelo Graci ruled in May that the garbage
would have to remain at sea. The MOBRO anchored off Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn, where it
would remain until its final disposition months later.
By June 1987, the garbage had been refused by six states, three countries
and Claire Shulman.
Harrelson aired his concern over the cost of the fiasco-at-sea. 'Every
meter I know of is running on my money,' he said. Harrelson claimed his out-of-pocket
expenses had escalated to more than $5,000 per day by early June 1987.
The barge fueled a display of political fireworks in June, as Shulman
battled Islip Town supervisor Frank Jones, who aired his frustration at Shulman's
continued success in keeping the garbage from being trucked through Queens for burial at
an Islip dump.
Shulman refused to budge, claiming her primary concern was for the people
'We need a clear plan explaining where and how the garbage will go,'
Shulman said. 'We cannot allow this garbage to sit on Newtown Creek to rot all summer
'We must have assurances that this garbage will be moved immediately
should permission be granted for it to dock.'
By mid-June, Harrelson had lined up three companies with more than 32
flatbed trucks to transport the garbage to Islip. He agreed to the cost of the transport,
but balked at laying out a $40-per-ton 'tipping fee' which would have set him back an
The 'Donahue Show' hosted Shulman, Jones and Harrelson in June, in a
discussion of what Phil Donahue termed 'the most famous 3,000 tons of garbage in the
history of the universe.'
Harrelson quipped that he 'averaged over 30 calls per day with
suggestions' on what to do with the garbage.
'One man from south Texas suggested I buy armadillos a couple
hundred would eat that garbage right up,' Harrelson said jokingly.
In June, Jones went on his own rampage, withdrawing Islip's
offer to accept all of the garbage, and blasting Shulman for putting the brakes on the
'truck-trek' through Queens. Jones threatened to accept only 1,200 tons of the garbage,
abandoning 1,900 tons of the trash.
'We understand Shulman's concern, but we are tired of being involved in
New York City's problems,' Jones said. He attacked Shulman, Mayor Ed Koch and the city.
The bickering continued through June, as the MOBRO sat in
95-degree temperatures on its 74th day of 'abandonment.'
Harrelson's request for a permit to use the Edgemere Landfill in Queens as
a site for the garbage was denied by the state. Edgemere was backed by Jones, who
continued to issue derogatory comments about Queens and New York City.
Shulman said she would 'refuse to get into an exchange with Jones,' as she
and her aides stood on the steps of Queens Borough Hall to announce their victory in the
courts. The Queens Borough president had stood firm and foiled efforts by others who
planned to haul the garbage through Queens.
'When Nick and I walked out of court after we had won the final challenge,
there were all these cameras and reporters on the courthouse steps,' Shulman recalled.
'I turned to Nick and said, 'something important must be going on here,'
Shulman said. 'Nick turned to me and said, 'It's us!?'
'She stopped them in their tracks,' said former NYC Department of
Sanitation spokesman Vito Turso.
The tug 'Break of Dawn' made its last trip with the MOBRO barge in early
July, when the barge was granted a federal anchorage site on the New Jersey side of the
Hudson River, just north of the George Washington Bridge.
The tugboat then headed for repairs in Bayonne, N.J. It was back home to
New Orleans then, as the MOBRO marked its 100th day at sea.
Environmental groups from New York City and State moved the
court battle to Hauppague, L.I. in July, where they asked a State Supreme Court to ban any
dumping of trash from the MOBRO at the Islip landfill. The groups charged that toxins from
the garbage would contaminate the environment at the site.
Another court challenge began in Brooklyn in July. Borough President
Howard Golden began a new chapter in the barge fiasco when he asked the court to decide if
the garbage would remain trash or be turned into ash.
Golden challenged the city and state, which announced plans to burn the
garbage at the Southwest Incinerator and bury the remaining ash at the Islip landfill.
Despite the court action, city officials began a dredging project in
preparation for the barge's arrival at the Brooklyn incinerator.
The court challenges ended, along with the saga of the MOBRO barge, in
September. The city's Department of Sanitation worked out a deal with the Town of Islip,
where managers agreed to accept ash from the garbage after it was incinerated at the
The city managed, as part of the deal, to arrange for its compensation for
use of the incinerator and for renovation and refitting of the incinerator that enabled it
to accept the garbage when it was off-loaded from the barge.
Finally free of the garbage, the MOBRO chugged away from the Brooklyn
shoreline in October of 1987, headed for a 'thorough scrubbing' and a new set of
challenges, the barge owners said.
The MOBRO, an indistinct wooden workhorse, had unwittingly left its mark