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Tsunami debris from Japan poses costly coastal cleanup emergency

August 14, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • Workers in Newport, Ore., use a cable-cutting system to divide into sections a Japanese dock that made its way to Oregon's coast after last year's tsunami.
Workers in Newport, Ore., use a cable-cutting system to divide into sections… (Randy L. Rasmussen / the…)

WASHINGTON -- The prospect of more debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami washing up on the Pacific Coast has triggered a move on Capitol Hill to speed federal aid to states for costly cleanup.

A group of West Coast lawmakers has introduced the "Marine Debris Emergency Act" to help local and state governments respond more rapidly to the debris, which poses environmental hazards.

The bill comes after a 66-foot-long dock floated onto an Oregon beach, drawing widespread attention and concern. The one to two tons of marine life clinging to the dock included non-native species that could threaten local sea life.

The invasive species were killed, and the last pieces of the 188-ton dock were removed 10 days ago, said Chris Havel of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

But concerns remain about debris that is expected to continue to hit U.S. shores for the next several years – and how local and state governments will pay the cleanup costs. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month announced that it would be providing $50,000 each to Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington state and Hawaii to help pay for debris removal.

But Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) last month called the $50,000 for Alaska "woefully inadequate." Alaska plans to spend nearly $200,000 alone on a 2,500-mile aerial survey for tsunami debris.

Oregon spent about $85,000 to remove the dock.

NOAA has received hundreds of reports of debris, from bottles to boats, but traced only 10 items definitively back to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Debris has included a soccer ball found in Alaska and a shipping crate containing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that washed up in British Columbia.

Havel said that more debris is showing up off the Oregon coast.

He said more debris usually turns up in winter.

"We’re really eying the coming winter like a stranger in a dark alley. We don’t know what’s going to jump out and mug us," he said. "It’s going to be a significant problem."

The state has set up dumpsters along the coast to collect the marine debris.

Before breaking for summer recess, the House approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would provide $4.9 million a year through 2015 for NOAA’s overall marine debris program, not just solely for tsunami debris. Supporters of the program hope the Senate will increase funding to $10 million a year.

Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), chief sponsors of the Marine Debris Emergency Act, say they want to give NOAA administrators authority to declare a marine debris emergency, defined as when debris poses "an immediate threat to the living marine resources, marine environment, navigation safety, or public health of the United States, and is beyond the scope of state and local government ability to respond,’’  in order to speed federal aid to states.

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