US braces for tsunami debris, but impact unclear

Published: Friday, June 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Cleanup plans should be finalized no later than September, Ebbesmeyer cautioned. There may also be sensitive issues to be decided, he said, including how to deal with any human remains or personal mementos.

But just who will clean up the debris and who will pay for it hasn't been fully determined.

Begich wants to make at least $45 million available for local community groups to conduct clean-up efforts. Gulf of Alaska Keeper believes Congress should set aside $50 million a year for four years.

As it stands now, NOAA has $618,000 allocated to clean up tsunami debris. The agency's total marine debris program budget could drop by 26 percent to $3.4 million, under President Obama's proposed budget.

Marine trash isn't a new problem. The ocean is littered with all kinds of things that can trap and kill wildlife, hurt human health and navigation and blight beaches.

NOAA has previously given grants to local groups for cleanup work. The agency expects the tsunami debris to simply add to the ongoing problem of massive amounts of trash flowing into the ocean every day.

Volunteers in California report their efforts being stretched thin just in dealing with day-to-day rubbish. Seasonal opportunity for cleanup could close as early as September at spots in Alaska, where some beaches are accessible only by boat or aircraft and removing trash can be difficult and expensive. Washington has monitored some incoming debris for radioactivity.

Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, said more recognition needs to be given to the fact that it will be beach cleanup volunteers who respond to tsunami debris.

"Given that, I would like to see more state and federal support for the volunteer programs that will be taking the lead," he said. They're going to need help, resources and funding, he said.

NOAA's marine debris program expects solid plans from the states within the next few months. The governors of Washington, Oregon and California, as well as the premier of British Columbia, have said they will work together to manage debris.

Widespread or concentrated die-offs of marine animals aren't expected, said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace, but there could be local impacts.

NOAA officials say they don't think there's any radiation risk from the debris, despite the meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Alaska and Washington, said he thinks states, local governments, volunteers and industries including fishing and tourism need to pull together to clean up debris, and not simply wait and hope for federal funds.

"One of the things standing in the way is a unified, coordinated approach to this," he said.

Pallister worried that a lack of awareness may hamper the effort.

"You just don't have that visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to having oiled otters and drowned seabirds in that crude to get the public pumped up about it," he said of the tsunami debris. "And even if you could get the public pumped up, again, you don't have that culprit to go after — a bad guy. It's kind of a tough one to deal with."

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