Philadelphia's so-called Ash Boat, or at least its ash, finally found a home a few weeks ago -- only to be cast out again. In 1986, the City of Philadelphia loaded 15,000 tons of incinerated trash onto a ship, the Khian Sea. Fifteen years and many unsuccessful ports of call later, the ship's captain, Arturo Fuentes, and his crew have disappeared, and the ship's whereabouts are unknown. ''That's the million-dollar question,'' says Kenny Bruno, a former Greenpeace employee who is considered the national expert on the Khian Sea. With 4,000 tons of the original cargo abandoned in Haiti in 1988 once again at sea, the odyssey is not over yet. Here are some of the highlights.
During its first year at sea, the Khian Sea was turned away from the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guinea-Bissau and the Netherlands Antilles.
Having told the Haitian government that his cargo was fertilizer, the captain unloaded about 4,000 tons of ash on the beach adjacent to the Sedren wharf in Gonaïves, Haiti. A few days later, the Haitian minister of commerce discovered that he had been duped and ordered the Khian Sea to leave with its scorched garbage. The boat headed back to Philadelphia escorted by the Haitian military but left behind the 8-foot-tall, 300-foot-long mound.
Thinking that they were almost home, the crew of the Khian Sea anchored in the Delaware River, awaiting clearance to dock at Philadelphia's Pier 2. But at 3 a.m. on March 1, fire engulfed the pier. No one was ever charged with arson.
On May 22, 1988, defying U.S. Coast Guard orders, the Khian Sea left Delaware River anchorage to do ''engine trials'' in open water. After having gone missing for three months, the boat, conveniently renamed the Felicia, turned up in Yugoslavia, where it had stopped for repairs.
In November 1988, the boat arrived in Singapore without its telltale cargo, this time calling itself the Pelicano. The captain testified six years later that the remaining ash was dumped in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. That's the last anyone has heard of the ship.
Meanwhile, the 10th anniversary of the dumping of the ash in Haiti came and went, and still the eyesore remained. In 1995, Greenpeace, Essential Action and several environmental groups in Haiti initiated Project Return to Sender to pressure Philadelphia to repatriate its refuse.
After being fumigated as required by the U.S.D.A., the ash left Haiti aboard the Santa Lucia early in April 2000, even though there was still no formal agreement with a landfill, and the boat arrived in Stuart, Fla., later that month. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection finally agreed to dispose of the ash at its Pompano Beach facility on Jan. 25, only to rescind the offer six days later.