WASHINGTON, D.C. — Elected local and federal leaders joined last Thursday in demanding an action plan for tracking and intercepting Japanese tsunami debris that is already starting to appear off the West Coast.

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, an enormous amount of debris was washed out to sea. One year later, very little is known about the composition of the debris and there is currently no federal plan in place to address a large-scale marine debris event such as the approaching tsunami debris.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is a key proponent of getting out in front of this issue. At last week’s initial oversight hearing on the debris problem, she pressed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on what to expect and how to respond.

In an interview with the Chinook Observer following the hearing, Cantwell said “We can’t get a good answer out of NOAA” about whether debris will be genuinely harmful to coastal interests. “Today was a start to trying to get an assessment of what to expect,” she said.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Andrew, in a written statement submitted for the hearing’s formal record, noted the town couldn’t begin to deal with a worst-case scenario of many tons of debris rolling ashore for months.

“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.

Andrew continued: “My three main concerns for our local area and region relate to fisheries, tourism, and maritime navigation. If all three were negatively affected, it would in essence be a ëtriple whammyí on our local and regional economies. In combination with the general downturn in the economy, an uncoordinated or unmanaged response to this debris event is a blow that Long Beach and the Columbia-Pacific region cannot endure.”

Washington stateís coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and produces $10.8 billion in economic activity each year, according to an estimate from Cantwellís office. The shellfish industry alone employs 3,200 people and contributes $270 million to the stateís economy each year. Washington state is a national leader, growing about 88 percent of the West Coastís $110 million annual harvest. Willapa Bay is the primary shellfish-farming region in the state.

Cantwell said at the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee hearing, “For our commercial and recreational fishing and our vessel construction of ships, our tourism, our thriving eco-system, we all want to know what the plan is.”

Cantwell continued: “We need something much more elaborate to understand and stop this debris before it actually reaches our shores. …Many people said we wouldnít see any of this impact until 2013 or 2014. And now ships, and motorcycles, and this various debris is showing up and people want answers.”

In the interview later Thursday, she said plans should be developed to respond to a variety of scenarios, particularly in view of waste oil and other hazardous materials that could be in the debris. A derelict 164-foot Japanese vessel from the tsunami zone was sunk in the Gulf of Alaska by the U.S. Coast Guard in early April. It is vital that contaminants from such vessels be fully accounted for before they interfere with tourism, fishing and shipping, Cantwell said.

Cantwell also asked NOAA about the risks to the Pacific Northwestís tuna and salmon populations. David Kennedy, Assistant Administrator of NOAAís National Ocean Service, did not have an answer. The fishing industry is a major employer in the region.

“Marine debris adversely affects our fisheries,” said Matt Doherty of United States Seafoods of Seattle. “Itís obviously bad for fish and the environment but it also can harm fishing operations and large debris can pose a safety threat.”

In response to a question from Cantwell about NOAAís ability to track tsunami debris, Kennedy said the agency had struggled to locate a tsunami debris field and had used “commercial and available satellite imagery” and some classified satellite imagery in its search. In her follow up, Cantwell said researchers and scientists in the Pacific Northwest would be able to predict where the debris would land if better data was available. She committed to follow up with the agency to determine why better data was not available.

For one thing, she wants high-resolution spy satellite photos available to academic researchers so that they can formulate computer models of various debris scenarios.

In the interview, she said a federal marine debris program is being phased out due to funding cutbacks ó something she would like to see reversed in light of both tsunami debris and the vast quantity of other garbage floating out in the ocean. In the current situation, large pieces of Styrofoam-type material ought to be removed form the water before it degrades in countless particles harmful to marine life, she noted.

Asked whether local people might be employed in the debris cleanup, she said such a move is under discussion and might be a way to keep costs down, as opposed to bringing in outside contractors.

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