“Cistern failure” or “Waste is a terrible thing to mind…”

What does the ‘waste’ go when you flush?  The citizens of Baltimore found out the ‘hard way’ in 1989, and again in 2014.

Johns Hopkins Assistant Professor Graham Mooney (separated at birth from his identical twin) gave a thoroughly enjoyable seminar about something we don’t like to think about – “biosolids” (or, to you and me, ‘shit’).

He started by showing footage of what happens when six inches of rain falls in a day on Baltimore’s streets.  The sewers (which, in an historical anomaly, are separate from the storm water drains) floods, releasing all sorts of nastiness onto the streets

He then went back 25 years to the 1989 (1)  3000 mile journey – to Louisiana and back – of a 61 car train full of the self-same thing.

The city’s “Back River” treatment plant hadn’t been coping particularly well with the WW2 influx of population, but a million dollar (real money, back in the day) investment sorted things out mostly.  By the 80s, a third of it was being composted.

The problem that led to the “Poo Poo Choo Choo” began when the Grand Poohbahs at the State level decided they would impose a $10,000 a day fine on the city if it didn’t deal with its increasing waste problem. This got the attention of “Mayor Carcetti” [not real name] and a contract was awarded to a company to haul it away.  Six thousand tonnes were loaded onto a train, headed for ‘marginal land’ in Louisiana (that’s polite speak for poor powerless people who are surrounded by lots of chemical factories, also known as ‘Chemical corridor’).

At this point Mother Nature intervened, in the convenient shape of Hurricane Hugo.  The rain was not, however, redemptive – quite the opposite. No longer dry, the cargo was drippy and just a liiiiitle bit smelly.

The trains became a fecal, sorry, focal point for anger about the South being a dumping ground.  People started to protest.  And – this is America – they called in their lawyers.  And it became a media, well, uh, shit-storm.  Southern politicians liked the issue since it was one that could be noisily run out of town (as opposed to those nice factories, which provided jobs and other nice little earners.)  Matter out of place indeed…

Caught between two stools, the mayor of Baltimore agreed to take the waste back, saying that it was a ‘moral responsibility’ (as did another political leader later).

By this time Mother Nature decided it was time for more chuckles, and dropped the coldest winter in yonks on Baltimore. The “biosolids” became solid, and had to be jackhammered out of the train cars. Oh, what japes.

Mooney went on to point out how the Baltimore bureaucrats re-framed the event as a ‘crisis’ that they had (of course, heroically) resolved. That’s one analysis…

As usually happens at CHSTM lunchtime seminars, questions were good – on the geography of waste disposal/poverty, on the possibilities of blaming it all on Reagan (jobs travelling south shopping for zero environmental laws and no trades unions etc) etc.


Of course, 1989 was a pretty busy year for the environment.  Exxon Valdez had run aground, photogenically, in March, and both Ozone  and “Greenhouse Effect”  concerns were riding high. Two years previously the Mobro 4000, a garbage barge had done a passable imitation of the Flying Dutchman, down and up the Eastern Seaboard, leaving a convenient ‘hook’ for journalists and readers alike.

As Billy Joel sang so eloquently “hypodermics on the shore

Books to read

Blood on the Forge by William Attaway

The Ethics of waste: how we relate to rubbish by Gay Hawkins

Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem  by David Schneider

Films not to watch again

Silver City, dir John Sayles

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