Japanese Tsunami Cleanup Efforts
Key Development: Western coastal states are preparing plans to clean
up the influx of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
What's Next: State agencies will finalize their action plans for
dealing with tsunami debris, while members of Congress and governors press the
federal government for financial assistance.
By Anthony Adragna
Faced with an incoming wave of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Western
coastal states are preparing action plans for cleaning up the debris as
governors and members of Congress press for federal financial assistance.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) announced at a June 18 news conference
that the state's Military Department Emergency Management Division would lead an
effort to clean up debris. However, she called the federal government the
“ultimate lead” on cleanup activities and said she would work with governors and
members of Congress from Alaska, Oregon, and California to request federal
State officials from Oregon and California told BNA they were “hopeful”
federal funding would come for cleanup activities and said federal and state
officials had been working together. However, they were unsure how the states
will fund cleanup activities themselves if federal financing is not
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan left 1.5 million tons
of debris floating in the ocean, according to the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. A NOAA
model using wind and ocean current information shows the majority of debris
is north of the main Hawaiian islands, and state officials say they expect an
increase in debris onshore this summer and later.
“While we expect debris to arrive slowly over the next several years, there's
a chance a major storm could wash up several thousand pounds of debris at once,”
Gregoire said in a statement. “That will require far more financial resources
than our state has available. I'm confident our federal partners will recognize
the need to ensure our beaches, our shellfish, and the livelihoods of those
living on the coast are safe and protected.”
State officials said NOAA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S.
Coast Guard, among others, are likely to participate in the cleanup efforts.
So far, the debris mainly has been small bits of Styrofoam or plastic, but a
20-foot boat washed ashore in Washington and a 66-foot dock came ashore in
Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, said
the state is seeing manageable amounts of tsunami debris and has a group of
federal and state agencies working to “be as prepared as we can be.”
Havel said the department is working with Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) to seek
additional funds for potentially “extraordinary disposal costs.”
Rob Harper, public information officer for the Washington State Emergency
Management Division, said a combination of local, state, federal, and local
nonprofit groups are finalizing coordination efforts for cleaning up tsunami
debris in that state.
Gregoire said the state set aside $100,000 from the Department of Ecology to
fund cleanup efforts, but Harper added the debris cleanup was “going to go on
for a while” and said the state could not predict how much would come ashore.
Linda Kent, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology, agreed with
Both states outlined to BNA similar plans once debris washed ashore. State
agencies will assess large pieces of debris for potentially hazardous materials,
radioactivity, and invasive species. If the debris is large, the state may
commission bids to have the item towed or dismantled.
Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) both have requested
additional funding and a federal plan for addressing tsunami debris.
Cantwell said the federal government needs to develop a comprehensive plan
for addressing tsunami debris.
“The debris from the tragic tsunami in Japan is a national problem,” she said
in a June 18 statement. “West Coast states and communities cannot and should not
carry the burden and cost of dealing with tsunami debris on our own.”
In a May
17 letter to President Obama, Begich said NOAA has limited resources to
clean up tsunami debris, and he requested $45 million from the federal
government to fund local cleanups.
The House Natural Resources Committee slashed the proposed authorization for
NOAA's debris monitoring program from $10 million to $4.9 million at a June 7
markup of the Marine Debris Act (H.R. 1171). An amendment from Rep. Rick Larsen
(D-Wash.) to maintain current funding levels was defeated (110 DER A-26,
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee adopted in
November 2011 the Trash Free Seas Act (S. 1119), which would allot $10 million
to NOAA and $2 million to the U.S. Coast Guard for the marine debris program
(213 DER A-32, 11/3/11).
Several environmental groups said the tsunami debris underscores the need for
a broader national plan to address marine waste that washes ashore.
Mike Gravitz, director of policy and legislation at the Marine Conservation
Institute, said ocean emergencies are not uncommon and urged the government to
establish funding to deal with them.
“There really ought to be a way to deal with marine debris emergencies,
because they're not that uncommon,” he told BNA. “This is not like a once in a
lifetime event; there is no mechanism to currently pay for this type of
Ellen Bolen, associate director of government relations at the Ocean
Conservancy, said tsunami debris posed many of the same environmental problems
as regular marine debris and said the concerns over the tsunami debris should
apply to all waste streams in the ocean.
NOAA was unavailable for comment.
NOAA's most current model for the tsunami debris is available at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/debris_model.html.
Begich's letter to President Obama is available at http://begich.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=e62bd080-bc05-4abb-8db9-36f3175ea004.