Why a Train Full of New York City Poop Was Stranded in Alabama for Two Months

iStock
iStock

Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

Update: Parrish residents can officially breathe easy. The last of the sludge has now been removed from the town, and Big Sky has ended its operation there, according to a Facebook post from Mayor Heather Hall. The containers that remain have been emptied of their smelly cargo and will be removed sometime before Friday, April 20.

[h/t Bloomberg]

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

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Headphones and speakers

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Video Games

Sony

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TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

Samsung/Amazon

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home and Kitchen

Ninja/Amazon

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Blubber Boom: Reliving the Disastrous Tale of Oregon's Exploding Whale—50 Years Later

Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Haliep/iStock via Getty Images (Whale) // revenaif/iStock via Getty Images (Explosion)

The 75 or so people who had gathered on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970 stood at a safe distance and waited for the dynamite to go off. The explosives had been buried under the landward side of a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale. The mammal would feel nothing when it exploded; it had washed ashore several days before and was long dead.

Its status as a non-living organism was, in fact, the source of the problem. The whale had begun to emit a putrefying stench that repulsed beachgoers. It simply could not remain in place. Its fate was left up to the Oregon State Highway Department, which had no experience relocating whale carcasses and decided to treat it as they would a massive boulder that needed to be removed.

The issue was that this was no boulder. It was a whale. And no one was sure exactly how much dynamite it would take to reduce it to bite-sized pieces of blubber that seagulls and other scavengers would eat. To be on the safe side, 20 cases—or approximately one half-ton—of explosives were used. What happened next is something Florence locals still talk about nearly 50 years later.

 

It’s not always clear why whales strand themselves on land. Sometimes, an injury or illness weakens them to the point they can no longer swim, so they simply wash ashore. Orca whales might chase prey and then find themselves in shallow water—and unable to get back to the open ocean.

A beached sperm whale.Ablestock.com/iStock via Getty Images

However the whale near Florence found itself on the beach, it quickly began to make a posthumous impression. Visitors’ curiosity soon gave way to repulsion as the whale decomposed. Because the beach in Lane County was a public right of way, and nearby roads had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour to observe, the task of dealing with the whale was left up to George Thornton, the assistant district highway engineer of the Oregon State Highway Department, and his team.

It had been a while since a whale had washed ashore in the area, and no one knew exactly how best to deal with it—though various solutions were proposed. One idea was to simply bury the whale in the sand in an oceanside grave, but there were concerns the incoming tide might cause it to resurface. Another suggestion was to cut up the corpse, but there were no volunteers for what would amount to an incredibly unpleasant and time-consuming job hacking away at the blubber. Burning it was also impractical.

That left the seemingly rational option of blowing it up, which dead whales sometimes do naturally; the build-up of gases like ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and sulfide can result in a gory burst of guts spewing forth. But Thornton needed a more potent blast. He consulted with Navy munitions experts who theorized that, with an explosion, the whale would be reduced to chunks that would head toward the Pacific Ocean. Any lingering pieces could be retrieved by workers later.

Local news station KATU sent reporter Paul Linnman and photojournalist Doug Brazil to the scene via helicopter to cover the event. The two arrived and began filming a segment that included an interview with Thornton and a dispatch from Linnman with an enormous dead whale in the background.

 

At 3:30 p.m., spectators and the reporters were asked to move back roughly a quarter-mile away. At 3:45 p.m., Thornton ordered the explosives to be detonated. The scene was captured by the KATU team.

At first, locals cheered the spectacle, which resembled a building demolition. But cheers soon gave way to panic as it became apparent that the half-ton of dynamite had been insufficient to atomize the whale. Large chunks of blubber sailed over their heads and landed with a thud at their feet. Smaller pieces pelted their bodies. The smell of putrid whale oil engulfed the scene. In a spectacular denouement, a giant piece of whale at least 3 square feet in size landed directly on a brand-new Cadillac, smashing the top and blowing out the windows. The vehicle's owner, Walter F. Umenhofer, had wanted to meet a business partner at the detonation ceremony.

Incredibly, no one was injured. But as locals beat a retreat, it became obvious that further action would have to be taken. A large portion of the whale remained; it was eventually moved using a bulldozer and buried on the beach. Smaller bits of blubber were collected and either discarded or covered in sand. Seagulls that had been expected to feast on the remains were scared off by the explosion and remained wary of the area for some time.

For years, Thornton refused to discuss the incident, slightly bashful about the consequences of attempting to blow up a whale. Later, when the footage was circulated online, some people thought it was a hoax. Today, locals celebrate the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and then running around that very same beach. Just this month, Florence unveiled a new park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.

When 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same area in 1979, no dynamite was used; they were instead buried in the sand. As for the Cadillac: The state of Oregon reimbursed Umenhofer for the car. His son, Kelly, who was 14 at the time and went with his father to the beach, would later recall that the car had been bought at Old’s Dunham Cadillac, a dealership that promised buyers—prophetically, it turns out—that they would get “a whale of a deal.”