Senator seeks $15M for tsunami debris

HONOLULU — An Alaska senator wants $15 million for tsunami debris cleanup on the West Coast included in a federal disaster relief package for states affected by superstorm Sandy.

Sen. Mark Begich said it’s embarrassing that the government of Japan has put more funding toward the debris cleanup than the U.S. government has. He said the effect of debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan reaching U.S. shores is as much a natural disaster as a hurricane, drought or wildfire — it’s just unfolding in slow motion.

“We have to recognize that it’s different than any other type of disaster because if it’s like Sandy, you see it; it’s right there in your face, everything at once,” he said. “And in this situation it’s kind of like climate change. Things don’t happen overnight, they happen over a period of time, and when it happens and accumulates you look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do something?’

“We have that option right now to do something,” he said.

Japan has pledged $5 million for tsunami debris cleanup, more than the entire National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget for dealing with marine debris in general in fiscal year 2012. Begich said he considers a three-to-one match of the Japanese funding “the very least” the federal government can do to help cleanup efforts in Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.

It’s not clear just how quickly Congress will take up the aid package, or how big it might be. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he hasn’t taken a position yet on how much money may be needed for debris cleanup. “There are significant discussions yet to be had but I agree that there is a need for funds to help mitigate the effects of tsunami debris impacting our shores,” he said in a statement.

Some states haven’t yet used their $50,000 grants provided by NOAA earlier this year. In Washington, for example, after seeing an increase in debris from May through July, officials say things have quieted down and the state’s plan for dealing with the debris calls for conserving resources where possible. NOAA announced the grants to the five West Coast states in July.

In Alaska, the grant’s gone, having gone toward cleanup along 25 miles out of about 2,500 in the state before the weather turned too nasty for crews to be out. The work was done by Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which is dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline. Monitoring by the group found a huge jump in the weight of debris found at four sites it regularly visits.

“It’s just devastating, just sick,” said the group’s president, Chris Pallister, who worries about the effect of the debris on fish and wildlife.

Tsunami debris is difficult to monitor, given that debris can break up and winds and ocean currents consistently change. And it’s tough to distinguish it from the everyday debris that has been an ongoing problem for coastal communities for years. Just 16 items from among more than 1,400 reports have been firmly traced to the tsunami, including a small boat found recently in the northwest Hawaiian islands.

The Japanese government estimated that 1.5 million tons of debris were floating in the ocean in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, but it’s not clear how much is still floating nearly two years on or just what will U.S. shores, when.

NOAA estimates the bulk of what is coming either has arrived or will in the next year or so — but that’s a rough guess. The Japanese government last month predicted the most buoyant debris, such as buoys that littered some Alaska beaches earlier this year, has already arrived. Lumber from houses and boats is expected to begin reaching the West Coast around this month, and mostly submerged debris, like driftwood or waterlogged lumber, is expected around June next year.

In Oregon, after a fairly normal year for debris — save for the massive dock that washed ashore from Japan — a recent storm brought foam and other rubbish onto isolated sections of shoreline, said Chris Havel, spokesman for the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation. State response teams were also recently activated to dispose of a gas can that washed up.

Havel shares Pallister’s concerns about the environmental impact of debris as it breaks up. Unlike in Alaska, where beaches are often remote and treacherous during the fall and winter, beaches in Oregon are largely accessible year-round, and Havel was placing orders earlier this week for another 10,000 bags that will be used in cleanup. He placed his last order in July, but anticipates needing more as the winter wears on.

“We do need resources now, people and money now, to deal with it here at the beginning of a two- to three-year effort,” he said.

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