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Debris gets local, federal attention

U.S. Senate hearing today to look at tsunami aftermath efforts

Posted: May 17, 2012 - 12:09am

Ocean debris thought to be from Japan’s devastating tsunami is washing up on Alaska’s shores, raising concerns among state officials and others that a response plan is needed.

Legislators, including Rep. Beth Kerttula, are asking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop such a plan.

“We do not know how much tsunami-generated debris is on its way towards the coastlines of Alaska and other Pacific states, but the first waves of it are already here,” Kerttula, D-Juneau, and other legislators wrote in a letter to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

In Washington, D.C. today, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator David Kennedy and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Cari B. Thomas, director of response policy, will testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard about tsunami-generated marine debris.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairs that subcommittee.

Kerttula’s letter, also signed by several other House Democrats, warned the potentially dangerous debris could contain hazardous materials, containers of fuel and other toxins.

“Alaska’s unique, wild and prolific coastal regions are national and global treasures, but to Alaskans they are much more,” she said.

“Healthy coastal regions are the social, cultural and economic foundations of our coastal communities,” Kerttula said.

She requested the agency’s help in assessing what might be coming towards the state, what dangers it possessed and how to best deal with it.

Kerttula said the state could be facing “a prolonged torrent of debris littering Alaska’s coastline.”

Other Pacific states are facing similar threats, she said.

Begich has already joined with Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell to call on NOAA to do more research into the what their states may be facing, and for there to be no cuts to the government’s beach cleanup funding.

NOAA said the heavier items swept into the ocean by the March 2011 tsunami generally sank close to Japan, but ocean currents are carrying other materials to the U.S. and Canadian coastlines, with wind and ocean currents carrying them one widely scattered paths.

Already, a soccer ball traced to a Japanese middle school was found near Prince William Sound, and a derelict fishing boat was discovered off British Columbia.

The agency is asking for reports of tsunami debris to be emailed to DistasterDebris@noaa.gov

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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