Cantwell gets answers from NOAA at tsunami debris hearing

The lead federal agency in charge of dealing with the tsunami debris from Japan can't say what kind of flotsam will make landfall and how hazardous it might be. It also can't say who will be in charge of clean up or even how 911 operators should handle debris sightings.

That was the testimony offered Thursday at the first Senate oversight subcommittee hearing on response planning for the vast marine junk field projected to hit Washington and Alaska coasts late next year.

David Kennedy, assistant administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), fielded an hour of pointed questions from Sen. Maria Cantwell and two other members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Cantwell, along with Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, grilled Kennedy about NOAA's contingency plan for the coming economic and ecological problems.

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami washed an estimated 5 million tons of garbage out to sea. Some 70 percent of that likely sank immediately, leaving 1.5 million tons drifting slowly across the Pacfic Ocean. The debris field now is so vast and dispersed that NOAA has turned to classified high-resolution satellite images to help track it.

Kennedy testified that NOAA's 13-person Marine Debris Program is doing its best to anticipate where, when and what debris will hit U.S. shores. But when it does, Kennedy told Begich that it would be largely up to local communities to handle it.

"We don't have the authority to mount a clean up," only to coordinate, Kennedy said.

Cantwell, who has been pushing for a coordinated national debris-response plan, appeared exasperated, saying that NOAA needs to give "our coastal communities the answers they deserve."

Scattered pieces of debris have already washed ashore in Alaska and Washington, including containers of solvents, soccer balls and Styrofoam.

"911 operators want to know what to tell people calling about the debris," Cantwell said, getting no answer.

Cantwell later asked, "What do you think the risks are to the tuna and salmon population?"

Kennedy said he wasn't familiar with migratory fish.