Western States Working on Plans to Deal With Tsunami Debris, Press for U.S. Aid

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 aid.

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 provided.

NOAA Model Shows Locations.

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 Oregon.

States Organizing for Cleanup.

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 Harper's assessment.

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.

Federal Funding Uncertain.

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, 6/8/12).

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).

Environmentalists Point to Broader Problem.

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 event.”

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.

By Anthony Adragna  

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.