Tsunami cleanup likely to fall to volunteers

EDMONDS — The bulk of the debris from last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan is expected to start littering Washington shores in less than a month.

When it hits, cleaning up much of it likely will fall on the shoulders of volunteers, officials say.

More than $600,000 has been budgeted at the federal level specifically for tsunami debris cleanup, with another $600,000 set aside by the state. The state money will address larger, potentially hazardous items, and will buy cleanup supplies such as trash bins, bags and gloves. In most cases, though, it won’t cover the cost of paying people to do the work, said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology.

The state will send crews to collect potentially hazardous items or bulky pieces of debris such as boats, Kent said. For the smaller flotsam, though — the toaster ovens and coffee tables and plastic milk bottles and Styrofoam oyster floats — no one has clear responsibility.

“That’s definitely an issue,” Kent said.

Washington beaches have seen an increase in debris in recent months, but it’s nothing compared with what’s coming, said Curt Ebbesmeyer of Seattle, a retired University of Washington oceanographer who has been tracking the trash.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is concentrated in a flotilla north of Hawaii, and it’s moving toward the West Coast. Both NOAA and Ebbesmeyer estimate it will start hitting the coast in October.

Once it starts showing up, it could take a year or more to stop, experts say.

Ebbesmeyer said he has a network of thousands of beachcombers and others along the Pacific Coast who send him information.

“A tuna fleet told me they’re not operating at night because there’s too much debris out there,” he said.

The state also recently received a $50,000 federal grant. Of this, $19,000 can be used to hire Washington Conservation Corps crews to do some of the work — but they won’t be able to do it all.

“We’re working with local jurisdictions and tribes,” Kent said. “We’ll be placing Dumpsters at access points where people can find them easily,” and they’ll be marked specifically for marine debris, she said.

In most cases, though, it will still be up to local officials and groups to organize cleanup teams.

While the Washington coast is expected to get the bulk of the debris, Puget Sound and other inland waters won’t be immune.

Snohomish County parks director Tom Tiegen said he’s confident that volunteers can do the job here.

The Washington State University Cooperative Extension group graduates 80 to 100 people per year from its Beachwatcher program, according to Tiegen. The program trains volunteers, who in turn go out and participate in education, research and stewardship projects.

“We typically have a pretty engaged group that’s gone through a program that is all about volunteering and spending time on our beaches and educating the public,” he said.

“We have over 40,000 hours of volunteer service now in the parks and a lot of those folks help us manage 47 miles of shoreline,” Tiegen said. “I feel confident that we could mobilize pretty significant volunteer efforts to clean up our beaches.”

The city of Edmonds lies directly in line with Admiralty Inlet, the entrance to Puget Sound from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, in turn, the Pacific Ocean.

Edmonds parks director Carrie Hite said if a big bunch of trash washed up all at once, the city likely would call on volunteers to tackle the mess.

“We may have to also pull some staff to do that, depending on the severity of it,” she said.

Sally Lider is environmental education coordinator for the city, which operates a Beach Ranger program similar to that of WSU.

“We do have a pretty good community here and a lot of folks that walk the beaches regularly and take a trash bag with them,” she said.

Ebbesmeyer said people need more direction from the state about where to get bags, where to take the trash and what to do with nonrecyclable items such as Styrofoam, which can break up and pose a hazard to wildlife.

He said he’s had 400 reports of Japanese Styrofoam oyster floats washing up. Kent said the state has received a lot of reports, too.

Kent said the state will communicate with local organizations such as cities and ports, who in turn can get the word out in their communities.

“It’s kind of like a ripple effect,” she said. “There’s not really a cookie cutter plan. It’s more of a collaborative effort with local jurisdictions to do what makes sense in each place.”

Regarding Styrofoam, it will likely have to be thrown away with the rest of the trash, Kent said. It’s recyclable only under certain conditions, and it has to be clean, she said. These floats have spent more than a year bobbing in the ocean.

While the increase in debris would seem to indicate that most of it is from the March 2011 tsunami, state and federal officials are taking a cautionary approach in attributing the items to the disaster.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says 1,095 reports of possible tsunami-related items have been received in recent months on the West Coast of the United States and British Columbia.

Of these, only 11 items have been conclusively traced to the tsunami, according to NOAA. If an item turns up with Japanese writing on it, it’s not necessarily from the tsunami, officials say.

“It’s really difficult to tell where some things came from,” Kent said.

Ebbesmeyer says the government is being overly apprehensive.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of tsunami debris will not a have a label on it,” he said.

“Any decent beachcomber knows this. It’s not rocket science.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

More info

What should I do if I find an item?

Use common sense. If you don’t know what an item is, don’t touch it. If it appears hazardous, contact authorities.

To report an item, or to ask about cleanup efforts, call 1-855-WACOAST (1-855-922-6278). Items also may be reported to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov

Where can I go for more information?

A website has been set up by several agencies as a central source of information on tsunami debris.


Another website is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/

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