JUNEAU, Alaska — More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. government and West Coast states don’t have a cohesive plan for cleaning up the rubble that floats to American shores.
There is also no firm handle yet on just what to expect.
The Japanese government estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the catastrophe. Experts are not clear how much will ever reach shore.
“I think this is far worse than any … environmental disaster we’ve faced on the West Coast” in terms of the debris’ weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline.
David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, told a U.S. Senate panel last month that in most cases debris removal decisions will fall to individual states. Funding isn’t determined.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and other West Coast political leaders have called that scenario unacceptable, saying tsunami debris poses a pending national emergency. “If this was a one-time event all at once, we’d declare it an emergency and we’d be on the ground like that,” he said at the hearing he led.
On Wednesday, a concrete-and-metal dock — 66 feet long, 7 feet tall and 19 feet wide — washed ashore unexpectedly a mile north of Newport, Ore. A Japanese consulate official in Portland confirmed that the dock came from the northern Japanese city of Misawa, cut loose in the tsunami of March 11, 2011.
“I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that’s coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won’t be able to identify,” Pallister said. His group, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, works in the region devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989.
Tsunami debris is tough to monitor. Winds and ocean currents regularly change, while rubbish can break up. Some trash, like fishing gear, kerosene and gas containers and building supplies, can be tied to the tsunami only anecdotally. But in other cases — a soccer ball and a derelict fishing boat in Alaska, and a motorcycle in British Columbia, for example — items have been traced to the disaster through their owners.
NOAA projects the debris now covers an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, but can’t pinpoint when or how much might eventually reach the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.
An independent group of scientists and environmental activists are scheduled to sail aboard the “Sea Dragon” from Japan Saturday to an area north of the Hawaiian islands, with plans to zigzag through the debris, document what’s floating and try to determine what might reach the West Coast.
“You have a unique experiment,” said Marcus Eriksen, a researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, Calif., who is leading the expedition. “You have entire homes and all their contents … anything you may find in a Japanese home could be floating in the ocean still intact.”
Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked ocean trash for 20 years, predicts the main mass of tsunami debris will reach the West Coast as early as October, with the beginning of fall storms. Cleanup plans should be set by September, he said, including such sensitive issues as how to deal with human remains or personal mementos.
But just who will clean up the debris and who will pay for it hasn’t been determined.
Begich wants to make at least $45 million available for local clean-up groups. Gulf of Alaska Keeper believes Congress should set aside $50 million a year for four years. NOAA has $618,000 allocated to clean up tsunami debris. The agency’s total marine debris program budget could drop by 26 percent to $3.4 million, under President Obama’s proposed budget.
Marine trash isn’t a new problem. The ocean is littered with all kinds of things that can trap and kill wildlife, hurt human health and navigation and blight beaches.
NOAA has previously given grants to local groups for cleanup work. The agency expects the tsunami debris to simply add to the ongoing problem of massive amounts of trash flowing into the ocean every day.
Volunteers in California report their efforts are stretched thin just with day-to-day rubbish. Seasonal opportunities for cleanup could close as early as September at spots in Alaska, where some beaches are accessible only by boat or aircraft and removing trash can be difficult and expensive. Washington has monitored some incoming debris for radioactivity, though NOAA officials say they don’t think there’s any radiation risk from the debris.
Pallister worried that a lack of awareness may hamper the effort.
“You just don’t have that visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to having oiled otters and drowned seabirds in that crude to get the public pumped up about it,” he said of the tsunami debris. “And even if you could get the public pumped up, again, you don’t have that culprit to go after — a bad guy. It’s kind of a tough one to deal with.”