Photo | Alyson Sheppard | George Argeroplos
Lowell Harrelson doesn’t want to talk about trash. He hasn’t wanted to talk about trash in 30 years. But here he sits, at a makeshift desk on his dining room table, yet again talking about trash.
“So many people ask me about it,” he says. “It’s like chewing gum on your foot. You can’t get it off.”
Harrelson, 85, who lives in a one-story brick house behind Whole Foods in Mobile, is by no means an expert on garbage. But in 1987 the entrepreneur realized he could make a lot of money in the budding alternative energy industry. He came up with the idea of pulverizing household waste on a large scale, harnessing the byproduct, methane, and creating a substantial supply of power that he could sell to the electric grid for a hefty profit. He would just need to source the trash and transport it to a facility that could do the work.
Unfortunately for Harrelson, what started as a straightforward trash project quickly escalated into a media circus, an international security incident and an embarrassing moment in his history that he has yet to live down. But the episode had an even wider ripple effect; Harrelson, unwillingly, was the spark that ignited the recycling movement in America.
‘A perfect game plan’
Lowell Harrelson grew up the son of sharecroppers in Brewton. They farmed potatoes, corn and cotton, and he remembers not even having a garbage can back then. They didn’t need one; they didn’t make trash. His family did, on occasion, get sacks of flour and sugar, which Harrelson’s mother sewed into school dresses for his sisters.
“I can show you God’s hand in my life over many years. It was a real miracle I even got out of Brewton, Alabama,” he said.
He moved away for college, earning an engineering degree from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, and then returned home to work as a contractor. His operation, Ball-Co Contractors Inc., based out of Bay Minette, worked on iconic projects including Mobile’s Bel Air Mall and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. He later moved to Houston, where his company, there operating under the name International Service Group Inc., had 1,000 employees and worked on jobs all over the world, including in Lebanon, Bolivia and Saudi Arabia.
“I was doing reasonably well, but like everybody with engineering or construction experience at that time, I was fascinated by all of the discussion related to alternative energy,” Harrelson said. “We thought if you could put something together and create some kind of alternative fuel, you could be a billionaire.”
That’s where Harrelson was in the mid-1980s. A few years earlier, ethanol, produced from field corn, saw a sharp increase in demand when the U.S. began blending it into gasoline. He landed upon the idea of methane; maybe the government would pass regulations requiring use of that fuel, too, and that industry would boom like ethanol’s had.
As he learned from reading trade publications and speaking to experts, plants across the country were already extracting methane from decomposing garbage and turning it into electricity. Harrelson traveled to Upstate New York to visit with a waste operator who had perfected an extraction system. And he learned that New York City would be a good supplier of trash. The city had been running out of landfill space in the 1980s and was paying other states to take it off their hands.
Trash, however, was like a controlled substance in New York, which the mafia dealt out. So Harrelson brokered the deal with, some alleged members of the mafia, and purchased more than 3,000 tons of household waste. He found buyers in Jones County, North Carolina, who would accept the trash on their property, and then Harrelson could begin the process of extracting the methane and converting it into usable electricity.
The cheapest way to move the trash from New York to North Carolina was by boat, by a flat-decked iron barge. It would be towed by a tugboat, named Break of Dawn. Trash was already being transported between states via trucks on the highway; Harrelson just had a bigger, more visible truck.
“That barge idea looked good on all sides. I had a perfect game plan, had investors ready to go,” he said. “It had been done before on the small scale. I had a big plan to do a lot of it and had a lot of people in line to work with me on that.”
No one predicted how awry this plan would go.
‘Nothing else mattered’
In March 1987 Harrelson flew to New York to supervise the transport. The barge, named Mobro, was loaded with 3,186 tons of trash in Islip, Long Island, and secured with cables. Then it set sail. Harrelson drove a Cadillac to North Carolina to meet it, which he assumed would be the first load in a stream of consecutive of loads.
At some point, though, the barge drew the attention of residents along the water. Crowds began showing up wherever the barge would pass the coast, gawking at the mountain of paper and plastic, and wondering why it was being transported on the water and who was doing it. Then the media followed.
“It became a media event. I mean nothing else mattered,” he said. A news helicopter began following the barge, broadcasting updates on network nightly news.
When the barge arrived in Morehead City, N.C., and prepared to unload, protesters, the media and state authorities greeted them. Apparently the local government had issued a stop order. The state of North Carolina didn’t want trash dumped there in such a visible way. Not In My Backyard, went the saying at the time.
Harrelson pushed the barge away from the coast and dropped anchor so he could figure out what to do. His lawyers got involved. Florida offered to take it, but when he arrived, crowds formed and state authorities and bureaucrats changed their minds. He then towed it into the Gulf, entering the Mississippi River and tying it to a Cypress tree.
At the time, the New York Times described the barge as “a huge floating hot potato, an unacceptable risk for any elected official to assume. No one, as some politicians have said, wants to become a dumping ground for New York’s garbage.”
Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana said no to the trash. The Mexican navy and other Central American nations sent messages to the barge: Your trash is not welcome here, either. (Harrelson says he never tried to take it to those places.) The barge sat in the Gulf of Mexico for months.
“With thought and a little prayer, I can usually navigate whatever water I’m in at the time,” Harrelson said. “With this, I could not. It did not connect with reality.”
Five thousand miles and 112 days later, a judge issued an order. The trash would return to New York and be incinerated in Brooklyn. The 400 tons of ash that were leftover would be buried in a landfill in Islip. Harrelson paid for the whole operation and The New York Times estimated at the time he lost almost $1 million.
With images of 3,000 tons of garbage floating around on the coast being broadcast on primetime news, the public got the impression that there was too much trash and nowhere for it to go.
“The Mobro became a national symbol of the country’s worsening problem with solid-waste management and disposal,” the New York Times reported at the time. “In announcing the agreement to end the battles over the barge … officials said that its travails had clearly changed the public’s perceptions of trash.”
The media released statistics on the dire state of American landfills. They were closing, which was true, but not because they were full. In reality, the Environmental Protection Agency had released stricter rules that required landfills to be lined with plastic to prevent them from contaminating the groundwater. So small landfills were closing and larger ones were opening that complied with the regulations.
The trend continues to this day: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, in the mid-1980s there were 10,000 landfills in the U.S. Today there are 3,000. As Lagniappe’s Baldwin edition reported in its Aug. 28 cover story, “Trash or treasure,” we still have thousands of years of trash-dumping to go before we run out of space.
But in the 1980s, the public was convinced otherwise and began separating their recyclables as a solution to a problem that did not exist. The recycling era was born.
Today, thousands of tons of trash cross state lines and borders daily, sometimes going as far away as Asia. American facilities and others around the world use the methane-extraction process Harrelson championed to create electricity from decomposing trash. Oslo, Norway, for example, imports trash by the boatload and uses it to heat half of the city’s buildings. In the U.S. these types of plants generate 20 percent of all renewable energy in the country.
Recycling on the other hand, many economists believe, no longer makes financial sense. It is expensive to clean and sort and repurpose trash. Some cities, such as Deltona, Florida, have suspended their recycling programs altogether. Recyclables, it turns out, mostly just end up in landfills or dumped, as a last resort, into the ocean.
But in 1987, when Harrelson’s trash barge arrived back in New York to be lit aflame, members of Greenpeace held up a sign: “Next time, try recycling.”
‘Looking for my next mountain’
After the incident, Harrelson returned to Houston, where he went back to work. His friends teased him. The media skewered him, calling all hours of the day and night. The garbage barge even entered pop culture. The 1989 movie “Sex, Lies and Videotape” made reference to it, and it inspired a 1999 episode of “Futurama.”
“I tried to forget all that as soon as I could and get back to other things because I really have interests far beyond that,” he said. “How could it possibly be that something of such a ridiculous nature would come to define someone who’s tried as hard as I have? It hurt my feelings in all honesty. It would anyone. I resent being defined by a misguided barge-load of trash.”
Today, Harrelson sits at his dining room table, which is covered in a white lace tablecloth, bottles of prescription medications and stacks of Manila folders. He is currently packing, preparing to sell his home and move to Bolivia to start a new life with his wife, Maria Heidy, 39, who he married in 2010.
“That barge situation is the worst thing that ever could have happened to me,” he said. “To have done the things I did in life and to be defined by barge-load of trash. That is terribly humiliating.”
He feels the media was looking for a “goofball story,” and he, a mule-plower from Alabama, was easily made out to be a “dimwit,” a Forrest Gump-esque “doofus.” How could he explain what he had done to people who weren’t looking for the truth? “They were looking for a story,” he said.
When the recession hit in 2008, Harrelson shut down his business in Houston. (“It wasn’t hard. There’s wasn’t business to do,” he said.) He moved back to Alabama, built a home and spent time with his children and grandchildren. He began sponsoring children in Bolivia, where he once did business and where his wife is from, helping them go to school and improve their living conditions.
He also wrote. He’s currently attempting to get a young adult novel published and has a small collection of poems — “Poetry for the Soul” — that he keeps bound and covered with transparent plastic sheet protectors near his chair.
“Of broken dreams, and scattered things, and thoughts in disarray,” he writes. “Of mysteries deep, and endless sleep, and all that man might be. Of standing still, upon a hill, that looks toward the sea. Of faith have I, beyond our sky, we’ll find the great resolve. Of mortal men, upon the end, they see the reason why.”
Harrelson says he is still distraught by the global energy crisis. But he doesn’t bother recycling nowadays. He says he and his wife don’t eat very much, so they don’t produce much trash. And he says the recycling bins the city of Mobile gives out are worthless.
“If I put it out there, I get worried about it flying out of that little box,” he said. “I’m too old to chase it down the street.”
He says a man in New York wants to make a movie out of his barge episode, but he doesn’t see why people would be interested in it. That’s behind him. Bolivia is the future. He points to a map of South America on his wall that has three red pushpins in it: “This is where we’ll live. This is where my office will be. This is where the mine is.”
He’s going to be getting into the mining business, well the exporting business. He holds up a Ziploc bag filled with crimson iron ore, the ingredient used to make steel. He will be the middleman, transporting the raw material from the mine to potential buyers. (“I’m like Don Quixote, always looking for my next mountain,” he says.)
There is only one logical way to transport the iron ore to the steelmakers, and the idea makes Harrelson chuckle. To the Paraguay River. By barge.
“I think about that every now and then,” he said. “I wonder if the media’s going to show up.”
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