Cantwell Announces NOAA Classified Tsunami Debris as ‘Severe’ Event, Requires Federal Cleanup Plan

Cantwell-championed legislation required National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to act on tsunami debris

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has designated the debris from the Japanese tsunami a “severe marine debris event,” which requires the agency to develop a federal tsunami debris cleanup plan.

NOAA’s determination comes after Cantwell championed legislation into law requiring the agency to come to a decision on how to address the threat posed by the tsunami debris washing up on West Coast shores. Cantwell wrote the amendment forcing NOAA to make this decision.

“This is a major breakthrough in our ongoing fight to get support to Washingtonians responding to tsunami debris,” Cantwell said. “This severe marine debris designation means the federal government should be an active leader and partner in developing research, mitigation and cleanup plans. Washington’s coastal communities have already responded to some major tsunami debris and more is on the way. This designation means we’ll be better prepared and equipped to protect our coastal economy when it hits.”

Such a designation means that NOAA will establish action plans across all impacted states to coordinate the cleanup and removal of the tsunami debris. While NOAA has helped states establish local response plans, the federal government’s role is still undefined and severely underfunded. Without an action plan at the federal level, local governments are left with a lot of questions, such as how to respond to debris on lands under federal jurisdiction like the Olympic National Park. Washington state responders need to know how and when federal agencies will take responsibility for physical debris removal and provide the funds to do so.

In addition to developing a response plan, Cantwell’s amendment also directs NOAA to complete a comprehensive analysis about the debris’ economic and environmental impacts, and when and where it will arrive. This will give Washington state coastal communities the information they need to understand the local impact of debris and how to best prepare for its arrival and removal.

Until now, NOAA had failed to treat tsunami debris any differently than normal marine debris. But a large volume of debris containing objects potentially hazardous to marine navigation or marine life requires more coordination, research and support for response.

In any marine debris event, Cantwell’s amendment requires NOAA to determine if the debris constitutes a “severe marine debris event.” If the agency makes this designation, then it must notify Congress and work with an interagency task force to develop response plans and conduct research to address each event and mitigate the impacts on economic and natural resources. Cantwell’s amendment defines a “severe marine debris event” as a period of abnormally high amounts of marine debris caused by a natural disaster, including tsunami, hurricane, flood, landslide, or other cause. Prompted by Cantwell’s amendment, NOAA has also determined that debris from Hurricane Sandy impacting the East Coast constitutes a severe marine debris event.

Cantwell has been a leading proponent of getting a comprehensive plan in place that addresses the threat posed by tsunami debris. In December 2012, the Senate passed legislation containing several key provisions championed by Cantwell, including her amendment directing NOAA to determine whether the tsunami debris constitutes a “severe marine debris event.” Cantwell’s amendment required NOAA to make this determination within 30 days of the bill becoming law. The legislation, The Coast Guard Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 (HR 2838), was signed into law on December 20, 2012.

In addition to pushing for a debris removal plan, Cantwell also is working to secure federal support for cleanup. On December 10, 2012, Cantwell joined five other senators in a bipartisan request for a $20 million federal investment for debris removal in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Cantwell has long maintained that the states alone should not bear the financial burden of cleanup.

On May 17, 2012, during the first tsunami debris oversight hearing, Cantwell demanded answers of NOAA on what the nation’s plan is to address and respond to tsunami debris. Robert Andrew, Mayor of the City of Long Beach, said in a written statement submitted for the record that his city only has one dump truck. Mayor Andrew said: “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.”

Mayor Andrew continued: “My three main concerns for our local area and region relate to fisheries, tourism, and maritime navigation. If all three were negatively affected, it would in essence be a ‘triple whammy’ on our local and regional economies. In combination with the general downturn in the economy, an uncoordinated or unmanaged response to this debris event is a blow that Long Beach and the Columbia-Pacific region cannot endure.”

On March 30, 2012, Cantwell and Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) called on President Obama to allocate emergency resources to mobilize researchers at the National Science Foundation to help track and respond to tsunami debris. President Obama later mobilized RAPID emergency research grants to help states get more specific estimates of what might hit their shores – and when.

Cantwell continues to fight to ensure the federal government recognizes the threat posed by tsunami debris and mobilizes an aggressive response and resources for monitoring and cleanup. Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and produces $10.8 billion in economic activity each year.