Coastal states eyeing $50K in debris aid

JUNEAU — West Coast states plan to seek small federal grants to clean up rubbish that washes ashore — including any debris from last year’s devastating tsunami in Japan. 


However, the window for using the money this year is starting to close in Alaska with its remote, rugged beaches and early winter.

Alaska is expected to miss the early-August “best window” for cleanup of outer coastal areas, said Elaine Busse Floyd, who is the lead on marine debris planning for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Cleanup could occur perhaps into September or later in more sheltered areas, but those places might not have much of any tsunami-related debris yet, she said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week it would provide grants of up to $50,000 to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. States have up to a year to use the money, once they apply for and receive it, and it can be used for the ongoing problem of general marine debris removal and not solely for tsunami-related debris that can be difficult to verify without specific identifying information.

NOAA made the money available through its marine debris program. For fiscal year 2012, the agency had $4.6 million for marine debris removal, $618,000 of that dedicated to tsunami debris cleanup. 

The challenge for state officials — who are grateful for the aid and quick to praise NOAA for its work on the issue — is how to make the most of what they said is a relatively small amount of money. While much of what has been reported so far includes things like foam, buoys and fuel drums, just reaching some of the beach sites and getting the debris out, particularly in more remote parts of Alaska or Hawaii, can be expensive. 

And that doesn’t factor in the cost of dealing with massive pieces of debris, like the 66-foot long dock that washed ashore in Oregon after being swept out to sea in the March 2011 tsunami. The price tag to dismantle and remove that alone tops $84,000.

“It’s clearly not a solution,” Floyd said of the funding. “It’s a part. It’s working toward an ultimate solution.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said there’s “no question” dealing with tsunami debris will require more federal funds. He said senators from the five states are working with the Obama administration to identify where the money will come from, how it should be used and who will coordinate cleanup efforts. 

“Time is of the essence. The debris we have seen already in the ocean and on the beaches is just the leading edge of a slow-moving disaster that is going to go on for a while,” he said in an emailed statement: 

“The sooner the federal government acts the better,” he said.

It remains unclear just how much debris from the tsunami is expected to reach North American shores, and where or when it will hit. 

The Japanese government estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was floating in the ocean from the tsunami, but NOAA said it can’t say how much of that remains afloat. NOAA does say that items are scattered across a portion of the North Pacific that is roughly three times the size of the contiguous U.S. — that some debris has reached shore, and more is expected over the next several years.

In Alaska, volunteers typically don’t want to be cleaning up remote areas of the outer coast beyond Sept. 30, in part because of storms, said Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the Marine Conservation Alliance. In more sheltered areas, people can go out later into the fall but have to pick their days, he said.

Wendy Freitag, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, said the state’s beaches are relatively clean now, thanks to the recent efforts of cleanup crews. 

In California, officials are hearing from more people than usual interested in volunteer cleanup efforts, said Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission. He hopes to see additional funding and outreach to help tap into the interest and make the most effective use of volunteer help.