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U.S. lacks detailed plan to deal with tsunami debris, panel told

By Kyung M. Song

The Seattle Times (MCT)

LAST UPDATED: 12:40 p.m. HST, May 18, 2012

WASHINGTON — It’s been 14 months since a massive tsunami swept over parts of Japan, but federal officials still lack a comprehensive plan for detecting and disposing of the resulting debris that is expected to make landfall on the West Coast by sometime next year, a Senate panel was told Thursday.

David Kennedy, an assistant administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said his agency cannot definitively say when or how much of the floating debris will hit U.S. shores.

That’s largely because the March 2011 tsunami unleashed an unprecedented debris field, estimated by Japanese officials at 5 million tons. They guess 70 percent of it sank immediately, leaving the rest to drift on a 2 1/2 year journey toward the U.S. mainland.

Computer modeling by scientists at the University of Hawaii shows the debris is halfway across the Pacific Ocean. But the garbage is so dispersed that it long ago stopped showing up on satellite images. Instead, NOAA is relying on classified, high-resolution satellite images and debris sightings by ships and boats.

Kennedy was grilled for an hour at the subcommittee hearing by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D- Wash., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. It was the Senate’s first oversight hearing on the tsunami-debris plan.

Cantwell has called on federal authorities to develop a plan to assess the debris and prepare for any threat it could cause to coastal communities and their economies.

Already in Alaska, soccer balls, Styrofoam and even a squid boat have arrived from Japan, and a rusting motorcycle with Japanese license plates was found last month in a large metal container on a British Columbia beach.

Earlier this month, two dozen floats believed to be from Japan washed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

When Begich asked about NOAA’s debris-cleanup plan, Kennedy said, “We don’t have the authority to mount a cleanup.”

Instead, states would be mainly in charge of removing the debris, he said. But other agencies would have roles, too. The Coast Guard, for instance, would sink any “ghost ships.” Hazardous materials will have to be disposed of separately.

Cantwell at times pressed Kennedy for detailed answers he did not have. Kennedy did not directly respond to her question on what 911 operators ought to tell callers reporting tsunami debris. When she asked about the possible effect on migratory fish such as tuna and salmon, Kennedy said he would have to defer to NOAA’s fisheries experts.

At one point, an exasperated Cantwell summarized Kennedy’s testimony as, “we don’t have a clue about the debris.”

Kennedy assured her that NOAA was doing its best to blunt the economic, ecological and navigational problems that could follow in the debris’ wake. He was clear, however, on one point: NOAA does not have enough money for the task.

Washington and Hawaii have begun coordinated contingency planning with state and local agencies and organizations; Alaska, Oregon and California have not.

In April, 50 officials from various groups held the first workshop to write a draft contingency plan for Washington, said Nir Barnea, West Coast coordinator with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program in Seattle.

Among the issues to finalize are monitoring the shores, handling large offshore debris and alerting the public. The draft plan is scheduled to be released next month.

Experts expect the tsunami flotsam to wash up on Washington’s coasts for years. According to the projected 15-year debris path by the University of Hawaii, the main current will join the North Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California around 2015, swirling clockwise through ocean gyres for years.

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Maneki_Neko wrote:
If we had spent more time training those darn monk seals to collect trash we would have a solution ready. But nooooo....we just let them lay on beaches and get photographed, and occasionally clubbed.
on May 18,2012 | 10:53AM
manakuke wrote:
'Head in the sand' approaches are just a duplication of the Japanese tragedies. H-Power has radiation alarms that shut off operation (medical wastes). You really don't want to contaminate landfills with long lasting radiation. Strategies used at the Hanford site(One of the most dangerous sites in America) should be examined or implemented,
on May 18,2012 | 11:05AM
DABLACK wrote:
Not to be concerned... The USA get plenty money. They donate millions to other countries' disasters but cannot take care of our own.
on May 18,2012 | 11:31AM
Graham wrote:
Have those ablebodied on welfare and those recieving unemployment benefits help with the clean up.
on May 18,2012 | 01:28PM
HealthyandHappy wrote:
I got a good idea. Pay me to come up with a plan. Pay me to carry out the plan. And I will contribute a proportional amount to your reelection campaign.
on May 18,2012 | 05:09PM
Lanikaula wrote:
Procrastination is the problem here. THIS could be what is needed to get ALL countries involved with dealing with this type of 'pollution' from the continents whether it be from a natural disaster or just being able to take care of the by-product waste created by the developers/manufacturers of the original 'product'. just imagine the jobs that can be created from this environmental disaster!? if i remember, wasn't there ANOTHER 'floating island' of debris the size of Texas floating somewhere between Hawaii and the west coast of the continent? THAT would have been a great start to getting/putting in some thought long before this Japan disaster. Plan: retro-fit an 'oil rig' type structure, power it to the site by barges, scoop up all the debris, sort it, recycle the debris to power this structure, create energy fuels from this waste, shuttle crews to work this rig every month or so and get the job done. But don't stop there continue the effort in cleaning up this planet's oceans everywhere that has been polluted for years and stop the mentality of "out of sight, out of mind!' 'nuf said.
on May 18,2012 | 10:16PM
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