Editorial: Let’s not be caught flat-footed

It could be Y2K all over again or it could be a big pain in the propeller. At this point, nobody knows how much tsunami debris will drift into West Coast shipping lanes and onto local beaches. But we must not assume it will be a threat that harmlessly dissipates, like the Y2K/year 2000 worldwide computer crash that didn’t happen.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other Pacific Northwest leaders and citizens have been pushing hard in recent weeks for federal agencies to better coordinate plans for handling wreckage from the March 11, 2011 disaster.

Scientists believe much of vast quantity of material swept into the sea will remain there forever, either sinking or joining the permanent gyre of garbage that spins on the surface of the North Pacific. But with entire cities, towns and factories demolished, there is a disturbing chance that U.S. mariners and coastal residents will be dealing with the issue for years.

A few scattered objects are already hitting the mainland, most recently including part of a restaurant sign that washed up in Alaska. Latest estimates place the initial arrival of many heavier objects starting this fall.

Cantwell, who conducted a hearing on the matter in Seattle Thursday, said uncertainty is one of the big issues surrounding tsunami debris. In part thanks to her interest, the U.S. Defense Department recently began sharing spy satellite photos of the open Pacific, images that show objects as little as about 1 square yard in size. Study of these photos so far reveals no huge concentration of junk. Godzilla does not appear to be swimming our direction.

But the Pacific Ocean is a vast area. Debris fields may simply not have been in the satellite images examined so far, or perhaps there is a vast amount of material too small for the photos to show.

Cantwell is right to fight for ongoing agency attention to this matter. We do not want to be caught flat-footed if fuel tanks or other hazardous items begin bobbing on the surface of U.S. waters. Protocols must be developed for dealing with 911 calls about objects that cause concern. Cleanup equipment and personnel need to be at least tentatively identified, in case they are needed.

The true extent of this threat will be revealed in coming months. Sensible steps to plan in advance may save us much future expense and economic damage.