HONOLULU — An Alaska senator wants $15 million for tsunami debris cleanup on the West Coast included in a federal disaster relief package for states affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Sen. Mark Begich said it’s embarrassing that the government of Japan has put more funding toward the debris cleanup than the U.S. government has. He said the impact of debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan reaching U.S. shores is as much a natural disaster as a hurricane, drought or wildfire — it’s just unfolding slowly.
“We have to recognize that it’s different than any other type of disaster because if it’s like Sandy, you see it; it’s right there in your face, everything at once,” he said. “And in this situation it’s kind of like climate change. Things don’t happen overnight, they happen over a period of time, and when it happens and accumulates you look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do something?’
“We have that option right now to do something,” he said.
Japan has pledged $5 million for tsunami debris cleanup, more than the entire National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget for dealing with marine debris in general in 2012. Begich said he considers a 3-to-1 match of the Japanese funding “the very least” the federal government can do to help clean up in Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington.
It’s not clear just how quickly Congress will take up the aid package, or how big it might be. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he hasn’t taken a position yet on how much money may be needed for debris cleanup. “There are significant discussions yet to be had but I agree that there is a need for funds to help mitigate the effects of tsunami debris impacting our shores,” he said.
Some states haven’t yet used their $50,000 grants provided by NOAA earlier this year. In Washington, for example, after seeing an increase in debris from May through July, officials say things have quieted down and the state’s plan for dealing with the debris calls for conserving resources where possible. NOAA announced the grants to the five West Coast states in July.
In Alaska, the grant’s gone, having gone toward cleanup along 25 miles out of about 2,500 in the state before the weather turned too nasty for crews to be out. The work was done by Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which is dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline. Monitoring by the group found a huge jump in the weight of debris found at four sites it regularly visits.
“It’s just devastating, just sick,” said the group’s president, Chris Pallister.
Tsunami debris is difficult to monitor, given that debris can break up and winds and ocean currents consistently change. And it’s tough to distinguish it from the everyday debris that has been a problem for coastal communities for years. At least 16 items from among more than 1,400 reports have been firmly traced to the tsunami, including a 20-foot boat, pieces of which were recovered earlier this month in Hawaii.
The Japanese government estimated that 1.5 million tons of debris were floating in the ocean right after the tsunami, but it’s not clear how much is still floating .
NOAA estimates the bulk of what is coming either has arrived or will in the next year or so. The Japanese government last month predicted the most buoyant debris has already arrived.