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West Coast needs federal help with tsunami debris

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on June 19, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
June 19, 2012 4:59 pm

A worker burns debris off a dock torn loose by the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The dock, covered with several invasive species, washed up June 5 on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore. (Oregon Parks and Recreation/The Associated Press)

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

West Coast states have been bracing for debris from Japan’s devastating March 2011 tsunami, and the vanguard is starting to arrive.

Objects ranging from soccer balls to a 65-foot-long floating dock have begun fetching up on beaches from Alaska to California. Just this week, kayakers looking for debris say they believe they found part of a Japanese house on an Olympic Peninsula beach.

It’s just the beginning. The main debris field is still far offshore, and flotsam is expected to keep washing up for years. Japanese officials estimate that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the Pacific Ocean; although some it will sink, much of it will end up on West Coast beaches.

Most of the debris is manageable now, but that may not continue to be the case. Oregon is already experiencing a problem that challenges its resources – that aforementioned floating dock, which came ashore near the Central Oregon community of Newport. Hitching a 5,000-mile ride on the dock: about 2 tons of living creatures, including several species considered invasive and a threat to local sea life populations.

An official with one Oregon community said cleanup efforts so far have already exhausted its beach cleanup budget for the entire year. That’s likely to be the case for other coastal towns as well.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Gov. Chris Gregoire and other officials are right to seek federal help to pay for debris cleanup. When states are struck by natural disasters, federal emergency help is usually forthcoming. Although the tsunami took place thousands of miles away, West Coast states are facing what could be a costly aftermath. They shouldn’t have to shoulder the full bill themselves. So far the Western officials seeking aid haven’t gotten a response from the federal government.

Cleaning up the debris quickly and efficiently is important beyond the threat of invasive species. There’s also an economic consideration. The debris could affect West Coast fisheries by entangling nets, lines and crab pots, and it could hurt communities that rely on tourists visiting their beaches.

Many communities and volunteers have already stepped up to try to deal with at least some of the debris problem. But they’ll need help – a lot of it – when the bulk of the flotsam starts washing up later this year. The other Washington needs to come through.

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