U.S. must have plan to deal with huge debris field from Japan

THE OLYMPIANNovember 10, 2011 

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is absolutely right when she says the federal government must not wait until an estimated 20 million tons of floating tsunami debris from Japan begins arriving on U.S. shorelines.

Officials say the 2,000-mile-long, 1,000-mile-wide debris field from the March 11 tsunami in Japan is expected to reach beaches in Hawaii next winter and hit the Washington coast starting in late 2013.

While there is little threat that the debris – which includes everything from televisions and refrigerators to boats and tons of wood and plastic – will be radioactive, the garbage poses a huge environmental threat.

Normal currents should carry the debris from Hawaii to the coastline of Oregon, Washington, Canada and Alaska. There’s even a chance some of the floating waste will return to Japan in six years.

Putting a plan in place to minimize the environmental damage makes good sense.

Cantwell is correct when she says the United States must prepare for whatever crosses the vast Pacific Ocean. She recently inserted an amendment into a Senate bill that instructs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to come up with a contingency plan for what could be the biggest onslaught of marine garbage ever to hit North America.

Cantwell’ s provision, included in the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011, directs NOAA to coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups to brace for everything from clogged waterways to hazards to fish and beachgoers.

Cantwell told her colleagues on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that, “It will take the U.S. many years to continue to see the impacts of this.”

Putting a plan in place is a good first step.

As Cantwell noted in her speech before the Commerce Committee, “After the tragic tsunami that struck Japan, whole communities were swept out to sea in an unwieldy mass of toxic debris. This field is about five times the state of Washington. We in the Washington economy depend on our waterways for a great deal of our commerce. We have everybody from workers at restaurants to tourist visitors that are all going to be impacted by this. We can’t wait until all of this tsunami trash washes ashore. We need to have an aggressive plan on how we’re going to deal with it.”

We agree.

Jan Hafner, a scientific computer programmer and the principal researcher on the tsunami debris project said, “It’s a common misconception it’s like one mat that you could walk on.” Instead, as confirmed by the crew aboard the Russian training ship STS Pallada, the debris is scattered over a giant area.

When the magnitude-9.0 March earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan, it produced devastation the likes of which the island nation had not seen since World War II. While much of the world’s attention was focused on the possibility of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, the reality is the quake and tsunami left more than 21,000 people dead or injured and wiped out whole towns in the northeast section of the country.

Entire homes and businesses and their contents were washed out to sea and caught up in prevailing currents. Hafner and others have asked ship captains and boaters to log and report their debris findings – including time and weather conditions – in order to get a better handle on the movement of the debris field.

“We are trying to get across our message that it is coming and it’s about time to start planning some action,” Hafner said.

Washington’s Sen. Cantwell took up the cause and is right in her attempt to force the federal government to begin collecting data in order to put a plan in place to handle the trash when it begins hitting U.S. shorelines. Left unchecked, the debris could threaten multimillion-dollar fishing, shipping and recreational industries 5,000 miles from Japan.

There’s too much at stake to ignore the threats of the Japan tsunami debris. The feds must adopt a plan then devote the necessary resources to ease the economic and environmental impacts of the 20 million tons of trash headed our way.

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