May 18, 2012 in City

Tsunami debris arriving to waves of uncertainty

What to do with it? Who pays the bills?
Chenfei Zhang Correspondent
Associated Press photo

In a May 12 photo provided by the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, Isaiah Goodman, 8, left, and Colby Taylor, 10, pose for a photo with a float that was found on the shores of the refuge in Clallam County, Wash. The float is believed to be debris from Japan’s tsunami.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – West Coast residents are calling 911 to report tsunami debris they see coming ashore, but the operators don’t know what to say.

When Sen. Maria Cantwell asked a top official of the federal agency in charge of handling the debris what they should say, he didn’t know either.

That’s a problem, Cantwell said, because coastal residents of Washington state want answers.

“Many people said we wouldn’t see any of this impact until 2013 or 2014,” Cantwell, D-Wash., said at hearing of the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard. “And now ships and motorcycles, and this various debris, is showing up and people want answers.”

Cantwell asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration how the country will address the threat that tsunami debris poses to communities along the West Coast. But the lack of accurate data makes planning difficult, said David Kennedy, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. The agency has trouble predicting the location and magnitude of the oncoming marine debris even though it has used a wide variety of satellite imagery, including some classified images from the Department of Homeland Security.

Cantwell said it is also difficult to estimate the cost of the cleanup before NOAA’s research is finished, and she promised to help the agency get any data it needs for that research. She also worried how the debris could affect tourism.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Andrew wrote to the committee that local governments can’t handle the problem.

“The City of Long Beach itself has literally one dump truck – we are too small and woefully under-budgeted to address a moderate to heavy debris event,” Andrew said.

Cantwell asked how the debris might affect tuna and salmon populations, which are also important to the Northwest economy, but Kennedy said that impact also is unknown.

Chenfei Zhang is a student with the University of Missouri Journalism School’s Washington Reporting Program who serves as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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