Along the West Coast, anyone with eyes on the water has been urged by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to keep a lookout for flotsam from the March 2011 tsunami that devastated much of Japan’s coastline, sweeping 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific. But in Point Reyes National Seashore, it’s unclear who will be left to foot the bill for any large-scale cleanup once pieces from the tragedy wash up on our beaches.
“Debris removal will likely fall to the states in most cases,” David Kennedy of NOAA said Thursday, at the first hearing on tsunami debris held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in Washington, D.C.
Seashore Spokesperson John Dell’Osso stressed that the safety and wellbeing of both the park’s ecosystem and visitors was of the utmost importance and would be protected no matter what. But since the seashore is administered by a national agency, whether federal or state funds would back efforts remains to be seen.
“When or if [debris] shows up, it’s going to get cleaned up. As for where funding will come from to cover those programs, the park has no idea yet,” he said.
It’s hard to forget the startling imagery of houses, upturned vehicles and propane tanks floating amidst debris fields that stretched for miles. But while much of the initial detritus sank almost immediately off Japan’s coast, an estimated 1.5 million tons remained afloat and has been making a slow journey to the Americas ever since.
Among the first large items to reach the West Coast was an intact Harley Davison motorcycle that washed up in a foam-packed container on a Canadian island earlier this month. The bike was traced to its owner by its license plate—one Ikuo Yokoyama, who lost three family members in the disaster and is now living in temporary housing in Miyagi prefecture. He called the recovery of the Harley “miraculous.”
According to Dianna Parker of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, heavier items that sit low in the water could take on additional two years to hit land. But “higher windage” items that sit high in the water and have a bigger sail area, travel at higher speeds and have been washing up on beaches since the end of last year.
“If someone sees a hazardous item on the beach, they should call their local emergency responders,” Ms. Parker said. “We’ve created models to predict where debris may be located today. It’s incredibly difficult to forecast where debris will go, since so much is based on weather and ocean conditions, but we’re [looking to volunteers to help] gather as much data as we can.”
She also pointed out that many of the more dramatic photographs were taken just days after the tsunami, and more than a year at sea may cause materials to break down considerably.
As with the so-called “Pacific garbage patch,” Ms. Parker said tsunami debris may wind up as more of a “soup” of micro-plastics than recognizable belongings or pieces of trash. But whatever the waves may bring, she said NOAA was hard at work to establish contingency planning, and was liaising with state and local agencies to protect vulnerable natural resources.
While concerns have been voiced that tsunami debris could carry abnormal levels of radiation from the Fukushima-Daiishi nuclear disaster, the consensus among scientists in the field is that such occurrences would be highly unlikely.
“The only confirmed item [from the tsunami] that we have checked for radiation levels was a small fishing skiff that was pulled out of the water by a Russian research team,” Ms. Parker said. “The skiff was registered to the Fukushima prefecture, but when we checked it with the Geiger counter, the [radiation] levels were normal.”
Dr. Kai Vetter, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, said his team was continuing to measure local milk and fish to check for potential low levels of radiation associated with the release of radioactivity from Fukushima. The team is set to collect debris from the coast in order to check radiation levels—as soon as that debris is available.
Yet while radioactive contamination is unlikely, Mr. Dell’Osso said “the threat of other hazardous material is really high” and would be dealt with by the seashore in tandem with other agencies.
The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is instituting a two-year pilot project to monitor several beaches for tsunami-related debris. “Initially, we will have approximately ten volunteers surveying beaches ranging from the Point Reyes area south to Año Nuevo,” Program Coordinator Mary Jane Schramm said. “We need to firm up locations, however, based on discussions with the land agencies who have jurisdiction over these areas.”
The initiative will use already trained and skilled volunteer monitors; beaches will be selected based on where currents, gyres, eddies and wind tend to deposit debris at a higher rate than other spots, as well as on their level of human traffic. Surveys are expected to begin at the end of June or early July, once the official go-ahead is given.
“When it comes to the flow of the oceans, the world is borderless,” Mr. Dell’Osso said. “Our debris ends up on their beaches, too.”