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Ship of Foolishness

February 28, 2001, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) / Wednesday, Broward Metro EDITION


Two filmmaking environmental activists are making a movie about the 14-year -- and counting -- odyssey of the infamous ash barge that now sits in the St. Lucie Canal, waiting for hurricane season. They need an ending, though.

The ash is what's left of a load of solid waste that left Philadelphia in 1987 in search of a landfill to call home. Other U.S. cities and states wanted no part of it, and it was rejected by country after country for fear of its contents. Most of the 14,000 tons of incinerated trash eventually was dumped at sea, but 3,000 tons was left on a remote beach in Haiti before being returned to the United States, where Florida environmental officials and Waste Management Inc. quietly made plans to dispose of it in Broward County.

Then the locals found out, and Broward became the latest place to reject it. And so it sits, a potentially serious environmental threat to the Everglades, with the June 1 start of the hurricane season fast approaching. Storm experts predict a better-than-average chance Florida will be hit by a tropical storm this year. Five hurricanes and four lesser storms are forecast.

Scientists hired by Greenpeace say the ash is toxic. Waste Management and state environmental regulators say it isn't. But even if it isn't, if it were to end up in the St. Lucie Canal, that much ash in itself would be bad enough. State environmental officials acknowledge, moreover, that the ash contains traces of dioxin and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Mark Kraus, deputy state director of the National Audubon Society, says the impact of even low levels of heavy metals could devastate the Everglades, already struggling to recover from decades of abuse at human hands.

So, even though Waste Management and the state are probably right about the ash's relative harmlessness, it's foolish to tempt the fates to confirm that. The ash needs to go, and soon.

Which brings us to the perfect ending for The Ash Barge Odyssey. At this point it should be clear to everyone that there is only one realistic and fair solution to the problem: the ash must be sent back to the city of brotherly buck-passing.

Of course, Philadelphia will say, as it has for years, that the city paid a company to take the waste and dispose of it, and that therefore it is no longer the city's responsibility. Maybe not, technically. But the whole mess is hardly good public relations for either Philadelphia or Waste Management, especially in light of the ill-disguised environmental racism behind the assumption that what was too dirty for Philadelphia was perfectly all right for Haiti.

It's time for Waste Management to return both ash and payment to the place whence they came, and it's time for Philadelphia to take both back. It's the right thing to do.

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