U.S. Senate takes up issue of Japanese tsunami debris

By:  Ray Lane
Source: KOMO News

Northwest lawmakers pressed officials from the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday, demanding to know what's being done to prepare for a potential onslaught of debris from last year's Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

"We all want to know that the plan is," said Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

And, apparently, the government's plan is far from falling into place.

Officials from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard faced tough questions during a U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday. There's mounting frustration that actual preparations are severely lacking to deal with tsunami debris.

It's estimated that 1.5 million tons of debris washed into the Pacific during the wall of water in Japan 14 months ago. Some of it is already showing up along the northwest coastline.

Relying on reports from ships at sea, aircraft and some satellites, NOAA officials say the jury is still out on exactly how much garbage is floating around and how bad things will get.

"We haven't been able to find any debris," said NOAA's David Kennedy. "That's not to say it's not out there, it's not to say we're not still looking. I think the concern is not overreaching right now."

But lawmakers challenge that NOAA is not pushing for access to the best technology to see what's out there, such as satellite images from the military and Homeland Security.

"It's almost as if there is an attitude that the tsunami debris is top secret, and we can't get the information," Cantwell said. "It shouldn't be this way. The information and date, the best-guess scenario, should be available to everyone."

Surprises keep popping up, such as the so-called "ghost ship" that made its way across the Pacific, apparently without being detected until it was near shore.

But it's potential coastal mayhem that has so many worried. NOAA's budget has recently been slashed, and the agency says it has no money for massive clean-up efforts. Officials say if clean-up duties are needed, the job will likely fall to the states, which are also grappling with tight budgets.