More Japanese tsunami debris on its way

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — Expect to see more debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami land on Washington’s Pacific Coast as the storm season ramps up, state officials said Monday.

The state Military Department’s Emergency Management Division and hundreds of volunteers are monitoring the coast for an estimated 1.5 million tons of flotsam dispatched by the Tohoku tsunami after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake rattled northeast Japan on March 11, 2011.

“Right now on both the Washington and Oregon coasts, the beaches seem to be pretty pristine,” said Terry Egan, the state lead for tsunami debris, in a briefing Monday to Clallam County commissioners.

“Obviously, that could change over the next
month or two.”

Last month, the state released a marine debris response plan to coordinate the cleanup as the flotsam and jetsam come ashore.

Egan introduced the plan to the three Clallam commissioners and asked them to support a $150,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help fund cleanup on the Olympic Peninsula’s Pacific Coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An estimated 11,000 tons will arrive on Washington, Oregon and British Columbia shores in the coming years.

“There are over 400 vessels that are unaccounted for,” Egan said. “We know there’s a potential for hazardous materials, and one the biggest concerns is invasive species.”

It took Oregon officials $84,000 to remove a 165-ton, 66-foot-long dock that contained invasive species when it landed on the central coast in June, Egan said.

Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has predicted the largest part of the debris field will reach the Pacific Northwest this winter.

“NOAA’s been doing a lot of modeling that provides some information, but by and large they’re guessti­mates,” Egan said.

“The fact of the matter is this is a very unprecedented event. We’ve never had anything like this before, and it makes it really, really difficult to plan for an event like this.”

Clallam County Emergency Management program coordinators Penny Linterman and Jamye Wisecup, Environmental Health Specialist Jen Garcelon and Habitat Biologist Cathy Lear have been working on debris issues for the past 10 months.

Their informal work group and the Clallam County Marines Resources Committee will host a public forum on tsunami debris at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Port Angeles Senior Center, Seventh and Peabody streets.

“There are many questions,” Lear said. “There’s quite a bit of concern. People are still concerned about radioactivity, for example.”

Egan said it is “really unlikely” that the debris will contain radioactive material from a nuclear generating station that was rendered inoperable.

“There are a couple of reasons, the first of which is the tsunami hit several days before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant really started emitting,” he said.

“The stuff it was emitting, iodine and cesium, have a very short half-life. This stuff has been in the water for a year and a half, so it’s very, very unlikely that any of it will be radioactive.”

Egan said the state will take a “whole of government” approach to the cleanup.

“Basically, we’re going to treat the entire coastline of Washington state the same, no matter who the land owner is, whether it’s federal, state, local, private [with the landowner’s permission],” Egan said.

The state response is funded in part by a $50,000 grant from NOAA. The state Department of Ecology has a $100,000 litter control account to help clean up tsunami debris.

The Military Department has a $500,000 disaster-response account, $63,000 of which has already been disbursed for a trailer and public outreach, Egan said.

If successful in winning a new $150,000 NOAA grant, the state would cover the required one-to-one match.

As a partner in the grant, Clallam County would get $120,000 for a contracted regional coordinator. Ecology would get $20,000 and the Military Department would receive $10,000, Egan said.

Commissioners said they will add a letter of support for the grant application to their agenda for today’s meeting at the county courthouse.

Other support letters are being sought from Olympic National Park and coastal Native American tribes.

“Marine debris is really nothing new,” said County Commissioner Jim ­McEntire, a retired Coast Guard captain.

“What is new is the volume and the composition of it. So it’s good to think ahead.

“I think this is a worthy thing to support.”

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at

Last modified: October 22. 2012 5:37PM
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