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Officials scratching heads over response to Japanese items Print E-mail
Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer   
June 15, 2012 09:44 pm

 

The infamous 66-foot-long, 165-ton Japanese dock that recently washed up on Newport’s Agate Beach a year after the Japanese tsunami serves as an ominous omen.

At first, the dock proved to be a scientific and tourist attraction.

“You don’t really appreciate how large it is until you get up close to it,” said Chris Havel, spokesman with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD). “People said it was as big as a boxcar. It’s bigger than a boxcar. It’s 7 feet tall, 19 feet wide and 66 feet long. Take a boxcar and beef it up – and beef it up again.”

 

Getting rid of it is the current dilemma. Thus far, seven companies have submitted bids to haul the dock away.

More debris – much more – is on the way. 

When other communities up and down the coast – from Alaska to California – are faced with similar situations, those removal decisions will fall to individual states, said David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service. How to fund those efforts has yet to be determined.

Millions of tons more of debris are expected to wash up onto beaches from Alaska to California in the next year or so.

And nobody’s really prepared.

“There are no plans,” said Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman. “We’ve had no guidance coming out of the feds or the state.”

The lack of plans and what could wash up on shore both concern him.

The entire coastline in Oregon falls under the jurisdiction of the state Parks and Recreation Department.

When something strange washes up on a beach, that agency jumps in and, if needed, the city can provide additional help to secure the area, Milliman said.

He highly discourages beachcombers from picking up unrecognizable debris.

“It’s dangerous to pick stuff up,” he said. “You don’t know what contamination that item came in contact with.”

In addition to the small risk of radioactivity after the failure of nuclear reactors in Japan after the earthquake, items might have come in contact with anything ranging from hazardous materials to sea life not indigenous to North America.

And once ashore and collected, Milliman posed, where does the debris go? Will that location become an environmental issue because of it?

“These are issues that have been slow to be addressed,” Milliman said. “It needs to be addressed by the state, by FEMA – they deal with this on a global scale, and it ends up in our lap when they do nothing.”

It’s not for a lack of trying, Havel said. More-detailed plans should be forthcoming next week.

“That’s the very questions we’ve been working on,” he said. “We’re close to an answer but the answer is not here yet.”

The Transportation Research Board is developing a post-disaster debris management handbook for state and local transportation departments and Milliman has received a request for information to facilitate that compilation.

That board wants “existing resources and a review of field experience from state and local DOT and Department of Public Works officials, contractors and other staff responsible for debris management ... (to identify the) breadth and depth of debris-related experience and to identify potential participants for case study interviews to be conducted in future phases of this project.”

If that will be compiled in time to address cleanup for this winter’s anticipated wash-up is unknown.

 OPRD is working with, among others, the Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Coast Guard, Sea Grant, Oregon Surfrider Foundation, the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management – every entity that has a footprint on coast, he said.

FEMA isn’t involved because the coastline has not been declared a natural disaster area.

But Havel agrees with Milliman that there will be impact.

“Disposal comes in two shapes,” he said. “Now, it’s likely we’ll see things we can just take care of with our regular trash. But are we going to be at a point where we’ve collected so much stuff you can’t throw it away at all? That’s exactly what we’re working on. That’s all we’re doing.”

Volume is a huge unknown, he said.

The vast majority of the debris, he said, will get stuck in the Pacific Gyre, a huge eddy in the ocean that, by the nature of its current patterns, collects debris of all sorts.

The West Coast wasn’t predicted to see anything until next winter – much less a motorcycle in British Columbia or a dock in Oregon – this spring.

“What we’re seeing here are unidentifiable pieces of Styrofoam,” he said. “That’s what we were told we’d see later on in summer. We’ll see wind-blown material sitting on top of water: building materials, fishing industry related material, floats and nets.

“We see those all the time,” he said. “The only clue is if you usually only get one a week and suddenly you get three in one day. Then it’s reasonable to assume some are tsunami-related.”

It’s almost impossible to determine when the debris will arrive – and where.

“Nature has different ideas of timing,” he said. “Right now, it’s going in little waves: Alaska first, then Washington, then Oregon, then California. But that’s in the summer. In the winter, that turns around.”

Bays, natural inlets and places where driftwood washes up are likely to see the brunt of the arrival.

Havel also worries about sea life.

“Styrofoam gets ingested, it becomes part of the organism – at the microparticle level,” he said. “It’s still plastic. So getting stuff out of the ocean and moving it above high tide line is key. On land, it’s a nuisance but it’s not toxic. Once it’s out of the water, you’ve solved the major problem.”

 

At this point, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department recommends:

•Litter and other typical marine debris, such as plastic bottles, aluminum cans, buoys and Styrofoam can be disposed of or recycled.

People are encouraged to send an email with the date, location and photos to This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it if significant amounts of debris or anything that might be related to the tsunami are sighted.

•Call 911 if derelict vessels or other large debris, such as adrift fishing boats or shipping containers are seen.

•If debris is a hazard to navigation, contact the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area Command at 510-437-3701 for assistance. People should not attempt to move or remove vessels.

•Mementos or possessions such as those with  unique identifiers, names or markings, or those with personal or monetary value, can sometimes be reunited with the person who lost them.

If such items are found, people can call 1-888-953-7677 or by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it to make arrangements to return them to Japan.

•People who spot potential hazardous materials such as oil or chemical drums, gas cans and propane tanks should call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 to report the item giving as much information as possible. No one should touch the item or attempt to move it.

• In the unlikely event someone finds human remains, do not touch or move them, and call 911. 

 

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