Coastal communities question tsunami debris cleanup policies

By:  Natalie St. John
Source: Longview Daily News

A letter from Long Beach Mayor Michael Young posed a pointed question at a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday about the potential impact of Japanese tsunami debris on coastal communities.

"The $64,000 question: When and if debris starts to pile up on our beaches ... who is going to pick it up and where will they take it? The City of Long Beach itself has literally one dump truck — we are too small and woefully under-budgeted to address a moderate- to heavy-debris event," Andrew wrote.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, presented Andrew's letter at the hearing in Washington, D.C.

Cantwell has been fighting a uphill battle for stepped up federal response to the possibility that tons of Japanese debris — some of it hazardous — could be soon be washing up on Northwest beaches.

The hearing Thursday with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did little to ease her concerns, Cantwell said in an interview with The Daily News Friday.

Andrew's statement reflected the concern coastal communities feel about the lack of a plan for dealing with the waste that will wash ashore, Cantwell said.

"We've been hearing back from some of these mayors that they still don't have answers to these questions."

"We should have a contingency plan," Cantwell continued. "I think the local communities who are on the front line of this also want to know."

During the hearing, David Kennedy, an assistant administrator for NOAA, answered questions from Cantwell and other members of the senate subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Kennedy, according to press accounts, told the committee "the jury is still out" on how significant the impact will be.

He did not have ready answers for questions about the current quantity and location of the debris, the effect garbage might have on fish populations, or how local emergency officials should handle reports of debris.

"We're not pleased with yesterday's response, and we made that clear," Cantwell told The Daily News.

There is still much uncertainty about what type of event communities should prepare for. While some researchers, including those at the University of Hawaii, have predicted a significant amount of debris will arrive some time next year, Kennedy reported that NOAA researchers have recently had difficulty locating any garbage at all.

Cantwell, however, said the biggest priority should not be estimating how much garbage could arrive, but developing a comprehensive federal response plan.

Coastal states should have contingency plans for dealing with serious, moderate, and even light impacts from the garbage, Cantwell said, to ensure that shipping, fisheries, and tourism businesses can prepare for whatever ultimately arrives.

"It's more that we don't want to be left without coordination and response and federal support for our coastal communities," Cantwell said.

"Our coastal economy is a very vibrant part of our economy ...we don't want to be caught off guard when all the debris is washing ashore."