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article imageFlotilla of tsunami debris on way — Alaska already inundated

By Anne Sewell     May 3, 2012 in Environment
A flotilla of debris resulting from the tsunami last year in Japan is heading for the U.S. coast. It might take a while to arrive, but in the meantime Alaska already has its hands full.
Digital Journal recently reported on the soccer ball from Japan that hit the Alaskan shore. And apparently a Harley Davidson motorcycle washed up on a Canadian island recently.
Apparently the bike (view image) was found on the beach in a white container. The owner, Ikuo Yokoyama was traced through the license plate number according to Fuji TV. Yokoyama said “This is unmistakably mine. It’s miraculous."
There was also the report of a ghost ship, which was destroyed by the U.S. guard after making its way to the U.S. from Japan.
And now RT says that scientists are reporting that a flotilla consisting of 1.5 million tons of debris is currently wending its way across the Pacific Ocean.
NASA Earth Observatory researchers are using data about currents to model the arrival of the debris (view video above). They predict it will hit the U.S. Pacific coast starting from around October this year and that this barrage will last for about a year.
Alaska already inundated with debris
However, The Homer Tribune is reporting that much debris is already cluttering the Gulf of Alaska.
Chris Pallister together with officials from the Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been surveying debris all along the coast of Montague Island, as well as every other island in a 50-mile area.
Pallister travelled to the outer islands of Prince William Sound recently to check for snow thaw. He found a lot more than that. The beaches were clear of ice, but were covered with flotsam from the Japanese tsunami. This included chunks of wall insulation and even many gas canisters.
The massive debris field covers around 50 miles of the coast and includes fishing nets and canisters which might still contain kerosene, fuel and oil. Urethane foam torn from Japanese buildings is also being washed onto the beaches.
The Gulf of Alaska Keepers were planning to start cleaning the beaches on May 5 this year, which is why Pallister was checking the snow thaw. The group monitors 17 beach clean up sites and around 122 miles of coastline in the area.
In the past 10 years the group has collected around 1 million pounds of washed up debris (prior to the Japanese tsunami).
However, Pallister, who is president of the Gulf of Alaska Keepers, says: “What we are seeing is magnitudes more. In my opinion, this is the single greatest environmental pollution event that has ever hit the west coast of North America. The slow-motion aspects of it have fooled an unwitting public. It far exceeds the Santa Barbara or Exxon Valdez oil spills in gross tonnage and also geographic scope.”
The group plans on removing toxic products from the beaches as quickly as possible, to ensure that this does not wash back into the water.
Patrick Chandler, the Homer’s Alaska Center for Coastal Studies Special Projects Coordinator, will be assisting Pallister in the efforts. They intend to pick up the debris and dump it in piles above the tideline. This will then be barged to a port (most likely Homer) and will then be properly disposed of from the Kenai Peninsula.
However, to be able to do this, the Coast Guard and the Department of Environment Conservation are asking Pallister to train his men in methods of disposing of hazardous material.
“This means, we won’t get out to the beaches May 5 like we planned. It will set us back at least a week or more,” said Pallister.
Along with this debris problem, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council was told over the weekend that pilots are reporting that the outer Montague Island coast is also being hit badly with Japanese tsunami debris.
PWSRC Stan Jones, director of administration and external affairs, states, “The Prince William Sound Science Center and NOAA have also received reports of larger than normal amounts of marine debris for this time of year.”
Pallister states that since many federal and state agencies normally get involved in an environmental catastrophe, it will be important to plan logically in the days ahead, “Especially the agencies are loathe to say for certain this is tsunami trash, but there is no question. We clean 17 monitoring sites every year and another 122 miles of coastline. We have a really good idea of what is coming in. What we’re seeing is magnitudes more. A tremendous amount more,” he said.
He continued: “Then into the kinds of differences – cherry red fuel cans – kerosene canisters – we’ve never seen those before. All over the place – hundreds of them.”
Japan allows maritime floats consisting of Stryofoam, which is not used much by American mariners. The floats vary in size from 5-30-gallon size floats. “There are thousands of them when you look along the coast,” Pallister said.
In normal times, GOAK would find maybe 20-30 of these floats. However, this year Pallister has seen more on one beach than he has seen in his entire life.
“The thing that stands out to me is the amount of Styrofoam. Great big chunks – eight feet long to small broken up pieces. Urethane foam from walls that were destroyed. It’s an obscene mass. No way, in hell, that this is not tsunami debris,” he said.
Pallister also commented on the sinking of the Japanese vessel Ryou Un Maru, stating that this was a particularly unwise move by officials. He says: “That was so ill advised to sink that ship. There’s lots of fuels, Styrofoam, insulation, freezers, microwaves, all that plastic will pop to surface. It was stupid to sink it like that. It might take take 50 – 100 years, but eventually it will float to the surface.”
Pallister warns that a sustained cleanup will be needed to clear the mess: “We need a cleanup that is economical and environmentally friendly. It would be good to increase NOAA’s marine debris grant program. That’s a 1-1 match for leveraging local funds. The money can go further that way. We would have people on the ground for as long as we it takes,” he stated.
Pallister believes that the scope of the coast from California to the Aleutians means that there is a greater potential for dangerous tonnage than even the toxic effect of the Exxon Valdez.
“This is more hazardous than oil. Entire communities went into the ocean, industrial, household chemicals, anything you can think of in your garage and it’s all coming here. This is like a great big toxic spill that is widely dispersed. It will take a long time to clean. If not, it will be with us for generations.”
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