Lawmakers Express Frustration Over Lack of Plan to Handle Tsunami Debris

May 17, 2012 2:59pm

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill expressed frustration Thursday that states, not the federal government, will have to deal with the majority of clean-up when marine debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan hits the West Coast.

During the first hearing on tsunami debris held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Thursday, David Kennedy, assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service, outlined the agency’s efforts to handle the debris, which includes developing models to predict the track of the debris to conducting marine debris surveys over the next two years. But Kennedy also admitted states will have to assume the majority of debris clean-up responsibilities, a suggestion with which the chair of the subcommittee took issue.

“Debris removal will likely fall to the states in most cases and with tight budgets it is necessary to ensure that removal plans make the best use of existing resources.  NOAA’s coordinating with state and local agencies to create contingency plans for a range of scenarios which will include rapid response protocols,” Kennedy said.

“Communities are fearing that the federal government will not respond to what’s really needed, which is clean-up.  If this was a onetime event all at once, we’d declare it an emergency and we’d be on the ground like that, but this is going to be a slow drag of stuff, for who knows how long,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, later said.  ”To be very frank with you, it’s somewhat frustrating to hear that statement because the role of the federal government in emergencies is to assist states, not just say ‘It’s your responsibility, good luck.’ Because that’s not acceptable.”

“We do not have the funds to mount a clean-up, especially in areas that are as remote or some of the northwestern Hawaiian islands, certainly remote areas.  We just don’t have those funds,” Kennedy later said.

In FY2012, NOAA’s  Marine Debris Program received $4.6 million, but President Obama’s FY2013 budget proposed a 25 percent cut to the program.

“I think we should be discriminating in terms of what’s essential as a priority, and obviously this is a priority and we should have some pre-planning and some forethought involved knowing that the bulk of this degree is going to occur presumably in 2013 and 2014,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said. “Here we are facing reductions in the very program that’s going to be essential.  Ok, well obviously it doesn’t make sense, and that’s something that needs to be remedied.”

The government of Japan estimated last year’s tsunami swept 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean.  Over half of the debris sank near the coast of Japan, but 1.5 million tons of debris are still floating and while some of the debris is expected to break down, it is still expected that some products, including lumber, plastics and vessels, will hit the coasts of the United States in the next two years. Kennedy said experts say it is highly unlikely the debris is radioactive, but there is a possibility for hazardous items to drift ashore.

“I’m definitely going to react when thousands of cans of hazardous materials wash ashore and they have things like rat poisoning and gas in them.  We are going to react,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said.

In early April, a “ghost ship” set adrift by last year’s tsunami in Japan surfaced off the coast of Alaska and eventually sank in the Gulf of Alaska after a Coast Guard cutter fired at it.  Earlier this month, a Harley Davidson in a container that was swept away by the tsunami washed up on the shores of Canada.

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