Tsunami Debris Cleanup Here Depends Mostly On You

Apr 26, 2012

The first items of debris swept into the Pacific Ocean by last year's big tsunami in Japan are turning up on the Northwest coast. More is out there drifting our way. The state of Washington hosted a meeting Wednesday to prepare local governments and beachgoers for what to do about this. Oregon held similar meetings last week. Here's the takeaway: tsunami debris pickup depends largely on you. Correspondent Tom Banse is beach side with the latest.

It's just me and a few brave seagulls and sandpipers combing the high-tide line at Ocean Shores, Washington on this blustery, stormy morning. So far, I have found a few discarded beer cans, an old Gatorade bottle, a plastic coat hanger and assorted container lids. Nothing terribly exceptional, really.

I should say there was a volunteer beach cleanup this past weekend. And it is those kinds of volunteer efforts I'm learning that will be the backbone of dealing with the coming waves of tsunami debris.

"Really no has responsibility to clean up just trash on beaches. There is a lot reliance on voluntary measures. There's a lot of reliance on community groups," says Curt Hart from Washington's Department of Ecology.

He spoke at a tsunami debris planning meeting in Ocean Shores that involved dozens of different government bodies, tribes and community groups. They heard about innocuous trash, but what worries participants more are things like oil drums, containers with hazardous waste, even the possibility of a fuel-filled boat.

If you see something like that, don't touch or try to move it. There's a hotline now to report it. (National Response Center, 1-800-424-8802)

Hart believes it's "extremely unlikely" human remains from the tsunami will reach the West Coast. But personally identifiable belongings might, and Hart says those should also be reported.

"Move it out of the tide line if it seems to be a personal item. Report it to NOAA," Hart says. "They will try to get that back (return it), working with the Japanese consulate to see if they can identify the owner."

The leading edge of tsunami debris is arriving on our shores sooner than first predicted. The wind pushed some items that float high in the water briskly across the Pacific. But NOAA's West Coast marine debris coordinator Nir Barnea says the bulk of the tsunami debris is still north and east of Hawaii.

"More than likely it will show it intermittently over time, here and there, kind of in a dispersed fashion."

Barnea says the debris field in the ocean is so spread out now, it can hardly be called a debris field. Barnea says the widely scattered flotsam is no longer visible by satellite, which makes it hard to say how much has sunk and how much is still floating.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network