US: Impact of tsunami debris unclear

2012-06-08 20:11
Scientists from OSU and BLM agents inspect a massive dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach a mile north of Newport, Oregon. (Thomas Boyd, AP)

Scientists from OSU and BLM agents inspect a massive dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach a mile north of Newport, Oregon. (Thomas Boyd, AP)

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Japan - one year after

2012-03-09 15:53

One year after the Japan tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster, roads are rebuilt and debris is cleaned up. Take a look at these then and now pics.VIEW

kalahari.com

Juneau - More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, the US government and West Coast states don't have a cohesive plan for cleaning up the rubble that floats to American shores.

One group of scientists and activists sets sail from Japan on Saturday to explore just what might be on the way.

The Japanese government estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the catastrophe. Some experts in the United States think the bulk of that trash will never reach shore, while others fear a massive, slowly unfolding environmental disaster.

"I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast" in terms of the debris' weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline.

David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service (NOAA), told a US Senate panel last month that in most cases, debris removal decisions will fall to individual states. Funding hasn't been determined.

Democratic US Senator Mark Begich and other West Coast political leaders have called that scenario unacceptable, saying tsunami debris poses a pending national emergency. "If this was a one-time event all at once, we'd declare it an emergency and we'd be on the ground like that," he said.

Heavier stuff


One astonishing example of how the unexpected can suddenly appear occurred on Wednesday in Oregon, when a concrete and metal dock washed ashore.

A Japanese consulate official in Portland confirmed that the dock came from the northern Japanese city of Misawa, cut loose in the tsunami of 11 March 2011.

"I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that's coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won't be able to identify," Pallister said.

His group, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, works in the same region devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989.

Tsunami debris is tough to monitor. Winds and ocean currents regularly change, while rubbish can break up. Some trash, like fishing gear, kerosene and gas containers and building supplies, can be tied to the tsunami only anecdotally.

But in other cases - a soccer ball and a derelict fishing boat in Alaska and a motorcycle in British Columbia, for example - items have been traced back to the disaster through their owners.

Unique experiment


NOAA projects the debris having spread over an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, but can't pinpoint when or how much might eventually reach the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.

An independent group of scientists and environmental activists are scheduled to sail aboard the "Sea Dragon" from Japan on Saturday to an area north of the Hawaiian islands, with plans to zigzag through the debris, document what's floating and try to determine what might reach the West Coast.

"You have a unique experiment," said Marcus Eriksen, a researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, California, who is leading the expedition. "You have entire homes and all their contents ... anything you may find in a Japanese home could be floating in the ocean still intact."



- AP
Read more on:    us  |  japan  |  japan earthquake
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