Late local input  on state debris plan

<p>Returning from the coast on Hwy 12, this trailer hauled a large load of washed up styrofoam blocks.</p>

LONG BEACH — Long Beach Mayor Bob Andrew made a startling discovery on the beach July 5: A statewide tsunami debris response plan he and other key officials on the outer coast played no role in formulating.

Only a chance remark during that day’s beach cleanup by someone from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cued Andrew into the state’s Marine Debris Response Plan. A last-minute time extension permitted the city of Long Beach, Pacific County Emergency Management Agency (PCEMA), Grassroots Garbage Gang Coast Guard Station Cape D and the Pacific County Sheriffs Office to weigh in on the state plan at a hastily arranged meeting in Long Beach last Thursday.

Response planning comes just after the return to port in Hawaii of a research vessel that found a phalanx of widely dispersed wreckage coming this way.

“There is a huge plume. We estimate it’s more than 1,000 miles wide, maybe almost 2,000 miles wide — and that debris field is largely in the center of the ocean,” said Marcus Eriksen, captain of the Sea Dragon, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

“It really isn’t a thick field. It is very, very dispersed,” he told the Guardian.

But there were still astonishing finds. What looked at first to be a whale on the horizon turned out, on closer inspection, to be the front half of a fishing boat, with Japanese characters still on the prow.

In a way, the research vessel’s findings are reassuring. “We are not going to have this avalanche, this wave of debris hitting North America at one time,” he said. “It’s just going to be a slow trickle.”

We’d better hope he is right, in light of news this week that NOAA is so far providing only $250,000 for debris removal to be divvied up between five Pacific Coast states.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, quickly deemed the amount “woefully inadequate.” He said in a statement that the tsunami created a “slow-motion environmental disaster that will unfold over several years.”

State and local plans

Long Beach city staff distributed copies of the draft Marine Debris Response Plan for last Thursday’s meeting attendees to review and provide comment on the proposed concepts. Those in attendance included representatives from the United States Coast Guard, Washington State Patrol, Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, PCEMA, Department of Ecology, Department of Natural Resources, Pacific County, Medix, and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.

The draft, which was released this month, focuses on six tsunami debris response activities and the agencies responsible for them: communication and messaging (with Washington State Department of Ecology as the lead agency); routine and small debris (Washington State Department of Ecology); large onshore debris (Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission); hazardous debris (Department of Ecology, Department of Health and U.S. Coast Guard); offshore debris (U.S. Coast Guard); and volunteer coordination and management (Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission).

Terry Egan from Washington State Emergency Management Division, predicted that a finalized version of the plan would be presented to Gov. Chris Gregoire later this month. Once complete, the plan will be posted on the Washington State Department of Ecology website and reviewed every six months.

According to Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, the March 2011 tsunami carried about 5 million tons of earthquake debris offshore, some of which sunk. They estimate that there is about 1.5 million tons of floating tsunami debris dispersed throughout the Pacific Ocean that could reach our western coast.

Volunteers have been monitoring areas of the beach to remove chunks of Styrofoam and other tsunami generated debris. Washington Conservation Corps members have also assisted with clean up efforts.

Shelly Pollock, of Grass Roots Garbage Gang, said that Department of Ecology has set aside $100,000 in solid waste disposal funds. There are dumpsters available for tsunami debris disposal at the Surfside, Ocean Park and Bolstad beach approaches. Pollock said those dumpsters have been dumped four times so far. At the group’s July 5 beach clean up, 20,000 pounds of debris was removed from Peninsula beaches.

Economic-impact concerns

Mayor Andrew expressed concern about the possibility of debris being so abundant that it could interfere with fishing, clamming and shipping navigation. It was also noted that the amount of tsunami debris could increase and possibly overwhelm the volunteer effort.

Other topics of conversation included how to access to debris that is on private or protected land; where potentially hazardous materials can be stored for disposal; coordinating clean up crews; and installing signage with tsunami debris reporting information.

PCEMA director Stephanie Fritts encouraged any beachgoer who finds a container with potentially hazardous contents to not touch it but instead call 911. A dispatcher will be able to report the item to the appropriate agency for removal.

Beachgoers and boaters who have photos of marine debris suspected to be from the Japanese tsunami — especially items that may have sentimental value — and have the location where it was found, can email the information to disasterdebris@noaa.gov.

For more information on Japanese tsunami debris, log onto www.bit.ly/OSDzX5.

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