Flotsam: Garbage dumping, pollution, and legal tensions in the Detroit River

Abstract

This paper examines garbage dumping as a transboundary water conflict that brought to the surface issues of federalism as it did territorial sovereignty by examining a garbage trial in the town of Amherstburg, along the Detroit River. In June 1895, the collector of the town of the Canadian town of Amherstburg seized an American scow and tug which were accused of dumping garbage into the Detroit River near Canadian waters. As a transboundary waterbody, both the United States and Canada had access to and interest in the Detroit River; it was an important commercial water as well as fishing ground. The garbage contained all sorts of waste including animal offal, much to the chagrin of Amherstburg’s residents and officials. In the trial that followed, local officials and residents argued that the garbage interfered with fish catches and was a general nuisance. The collector had seized the vessels only after he had first tried to get a directive from the Ministry of Agriculture. His telegram asking for direction received a reply telegram which was merely an acknowledgement of receipt. When he did hear back, from another ministry, he was told it was a local matter as there was no contravention of a federal policy. To the American owners of the tug and scow, the garbage trial (as it came to be known) was not merely a local issue. Local officials and residents testified to their growing annoyance and the overall inconvenience caused by the dumping at the trail. To federal officials, this remained a local matter. By following the garbage trial and its aftermath, this paper shows how garbage became a local, federal, and transboundary issue, all at once thus exposing the interstitial space that garbage occupies. In so doing, expands our understanding of garbage, pollution, and their evolution as binational issues between the United States and Canada before the formation of the International Joint Commission.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A garbage scow is a vessel used to transport garbage. Scows can be towed by tugboats.

  2. 2.

    In their introduction to Border Flows, Heasley and Macfarlane quote author Jerry Dennis as hypothesizing that it is difficult to “see” the Great Lakes because “the lakes are too enormous and diverse to comprehend.” See Jerry Dennis, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011) 11–12 as quoted in Lynne Heasley and Daniel Macfarlane, eds., Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship, Canadian History and Environment Series, No. 6 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016), 7.

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Correspondence to Ramya Swayamprakash.

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Swayamprakash, R. Flotsam: Garbage dumping, pollution, and legal tensions in the Detroit River. Water Hist 12, 361–371 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12685-020-00269-x

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Keywords

  • Garbage
  • Great Lakes
  • Urban pollution