June 18, 2012 in City

Washington coast awaits tsunami debris

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jim Camden photo

OCEAN SHORES, Wash. — Lynn Albin, a radiation specialist with the state Department of Health, shows Gov. Chris Gregoire how she’s using a Geiger Counter to check for radiation on debris that may be coming ashore in Washington from the Japanese tsunami. State officials say they have not found any debris yet that has radiation contamination.
(Full-size photo)

OCEAN SHORES, Wash. — The state is preparing for an unknown amount of debris from the Japanese tsunami to wash ashore for the next several years, possibly carrying strange creatures but probably not radiation.

In announcing the Clean Shoreline Initiative today to handle the cleanup of that debris, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said it’s too early to estimate what the effort may cost the coastal communities or the state, but Washington is already serving notice on the federal government it expects financial support.

“We are in for a steady dribble over the next few years,” Gregoire said at a press conference at the Best Western Lighthouse Inn. State officials demonstrated on Pacific Coast beach how they would check suspicious debris for radiation, even though they don’t expect to find any traces of contamination from the releases from reactors after the 2011 earthquake.

“We have no — let me repeat, no — readings that are out of the ordinary,” Gregoire said.

And that’s likely to be the case for most debris from the tsunami for several reasons, Department of Health Director Mary Selecky said. First, the reactors were on only a small portion of more than 100 miles of coastline hit by the tsunami. Second, the debris had already been washed out into the Pacific for several days before the radiation was released from Fukushima.

There’s been no sign of radiation in any migratory fish that have been tested, like steelhead or Chinook salmon, Selecky said.

One thing state and federal officials weren’t expecting, however, were the presence of foreign, and possibly invasive, species on some debris, like a Japanese dock that washed up on a beach in Oregon. Washington state has the Departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife on tap for inspecting suspicious objects, like a boat that washed ashore near Ilwaco last week.

But no invasive species were found on that boat, Gregoire said. That’s probably because a stationary structure like a dock would accumulate a wide variety of species, as would some derelict vessels, but a boat that is being used, and regularly cleaned, wouldn’t.

Debris that is thought to have made its way across the Pacific is starting to wash ashore from British Columbia to California, but state officials can’t be sure how much is from the tsunami, because debris is always washing up on West Coast beaches.

Larry Thelvik, who operates a crabbing boat out of Ocean Shores, said his crew picked up some 500 pounds of likely tsunami debris on May 31. It was a series of fishing floats that became entangled and picked up other items. He said he’s worried about the debris carrying off crab pots or harming the crab harvest, although there’s no sign of that yet.

Local communities rely heavily on tourism, and state officials are worried that reports of debris could lead to fewer visitors, although state Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said the opposite has happened so far, and curiosity may be boosting visits a bit.

Local communities also are concerned that they won’t have the resources to pay for the cleanup and disposal of the added debris. The Ecology Department has redirected $100,000 in its budget to help with some cleanup efforts, but cities and counties may need more, and the state doesn’t have much flexibility in its emergency budget, either.

“We have very limited resources. That’s why we’re turning to the federal government,” Gregoire said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in charge of debris cleanup, she added.

In the next two weeks, state officials are expected to produce a draft of a plan that is flexible enough to deal with a wide variety of changing circumstances but have some idea of costs. At this point, the debris coming ashore is not yet at a level where Gregoire can declare an emergency to seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. She has limited funds available for emergency activity.

“I’m not going to call a special session of the Legislature at this point,” Gregoire added.

In the meantime, state officials say they are going to lean heavily on the main source of beach cleanups, volunteers who walk the wide stretches of the Pacific Coast and clean up a wide array of litter and flotsam and jetsam that comes in on the tides.

For those volunteers, the state has some advice:

First, not everything you see on the beach is from the tsunami.

Second, if you see something suspicious, call the Department of Ecology hotline, 1-800-OILS-911, which will send out teams as necessary.

“Follow your common sense,” Gregoire said. “Safety first.”

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