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Japanese tsunami debris to hit West Coast this year, sooner than expected

A new estimate suggests that debris from the Japanese tsunami will hit US coasts this year, not next year as previously thought. Who will lead the cleanup is still being worked out.

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Moreover, it is unlikely to be radioactive. Though the earthquake damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, resulting in meltdowns in the core and the release of radioactive materials, the Fukushima area represented only a miniscule part of the total area affected by the tsunami.

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In addition, most of the debris from the tsunami had already been washed out to sea before the Fukushima crisis. And even if any debris had been radioactive, it would by now have been diluted to the point of ineffectuality, say officials.

“This is not going to be a radiation event,” said Rick Wendt, head of radiation protection for the Oregon Health Authority. 

Some groups are already out on Western beaches. Oregon’s SOLVE, involved since 1969 in extensive volunteer beach-cleaning efforts, has been working with NOAA to record debris as it washes up. 

Other organizations are preparing, too. Oregon State Parks are consulting with the state’s emergency-management division to create a plan for reacting to and disposing of the debris. This plan, according to Oregon State Parks’ Jim Morton, is a month to six weeks away.

NOAA, state park authorities, the Coast Guard, state emergency-management officials, the Environmental Protection Agency, and volunteer groups are all in regular contact, but there is no overarching plan, clear hierarchy, or responsible party for the debris issue as a whole.

NOAA is the default coordinator, according to Nir Barnea, West Coast coordinator for NOAA’s Marine Debris program. The EPA, state department of environmental quality, and Coast Guard share responsibility for any hazardous material. Each state’s park authority is responsible for disposing of non-hazardous materials. 

Officials say that anyone who spots what seems to be hazardous debris or unknown objects should not touch them, but rather get the attention of local authorities and let them handle the identification and disposal. 

For example, a beachcomber who finds tsunami debris could take a photo with a smartphone and e-mail it to disasterdebris@noaa.gov, as well as report the find to the nearest authority.  In the unlikely event of that human remains – or any material “of sentimental value,” such as jewelry – are found, the Japanese consulate would be brought in. 

The efforts could have budget consequences. “Cleanup is where the rubber meets the road,” Mr. Morton of Oregon State Parks says. “We have a budget for the entire coastline and that could be exceeded. If that happens, we will have to go to the Office of Emergency Management to help offset that cost.”

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