Monday, November 20, 2017

U.S. braces for tsunami debris, but impact is unclear

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JUNEAU, Alaska — More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. government and West Coast states don't have a cohesive plan for cleaning up the rubble that floats to American shores.

There is also no firm handle yet on just what to expect.

The Japanese government estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the catastrophe. Some experts in the United States think the bulk of that trash will never reach shore, while others fear a massive, slowly unfolding environmental disaster.

"I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast" in terms of the debris' weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline.

David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service, told a U.S. Senate panel last month that in most cases debris removal decisions will fall to individual states. Funding hasn't been determined.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and other West Coast political leaders have called that scenario unacceptable, saying tsunami debris poses a pending national emergency.

"If this was a one-time event all at once, we'd declare it an emergency, and we'd be on the ground like that," he said, during a hearing he led.

One astonishing example of how the unexpected can suddenly appear occurred Wednesday in Oregon when a concrete and metal dock measuring 66 feet long, 7 feet tall and 19 feet wide washed ashore a mile north of Newport. A Japanese consulate official in Portland confirmed that the dock came from the northern Japanese city of Misawa, cut loose in the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

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