Japanese dock suddenly makes tsunami debris threat real

Jun 8, 2012

When a massive concrete and metal dock – 66 feet long, seven feet tall, 19 feet wide and covered in alien species – hit an Oregon beach this week, the threat to the Northwest’s economy and environment from millions of tons of Japanese tsunami debris suddenly became more real.

Even with the haunting appearance of a Japanese ship floating off the coast of Alaska, reports of what we might expect to hit our coastlines centered mostly on plastics, soccer balls and even some human remains in running shoes – all of which carried more curiosity than alarm.

But then the dock just showed up on the beach one morning and now the threat of ships colliding with significant tsunami debris, and the invasive species that can hitch a ride from the coast of Japan on them, has officials significantly worried.

"I think (the tsunami debris field) is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast,” said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris. "I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that's coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won't be able to identify.”

The 165-ton dock was one of four that broke loose from the port of Misawa in the tsunami. Two other docks from Misawa are still missing.

A man looks at the dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach Wednesday in Newport, Ore.

U.S. still has no plan to deal with the debris

The Japanese government estimates 1.5 million tons of debris is floating from the catastrophe. Some U.S. experts think the bulk of that will never reach shore. But others fear a massive, slowly-unfolding environmental disaster.

In this photo provided by Ryan Pallister, Patrick Chandler removes tsunami debris on Montague Island near Seward, Alaska, on Wednesday.

Among them are U.S. senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mark Begich (D-AK). In November, Cantwell first raised the alarm in a Senate Commerce Committee:

“After the tragic tsunami that struck Japan, whole communities were swept out to sea in an unwieldy mass of toxic debris. We can’t wait until all of this tsunami trash washes ashore. We need to have an aggressive plan on how we’re going to deal with it.”

(Once you get through the commercial, this video shows the extent of the debris:)

Since then, Cantwell and Begich have been pressuring the federal government to allocate resources to deal with the problem. In March, the senators called for a “clear federal action plan to address the tsunami debris off the Pacific Coast,” following the discovery a tsunami-swept Japanese fishing vessel.

“With the uncertainty around the arrival of tsunami debris from Japan, we need to make sure there is a plan in place and sufficient funds for a prompt response,” said Begich, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard.

“I strongly urge the President to take productive steps to ensure that the jobs and industry supported by marine industries in Alaska and Washington alike are sufficiently protected and out of harm’s way.”

Expensive to clean up

So far, no clear action has been taken, and whatever action is taken is likely to be expensive.

In an earlier story on the tsunami debris, KPLU learned from Andrea Neal, President of Blue Ocean Science and an experienced ocean cleaner, that “when you’re talking about open ocean … It’s a very big ocean. … There isn’t a whole lot being done in the open ocean.”

That’s because most programs devoted to cleaning marine debris focus on prevention and coastal cleanup. When crews do confront debris in the open ocean, cleanup efforts require hands, a ship and supplies which can cost more than $35,000 per day to operate.

Invasive species threat

The boxcar-sized dock that was torn loose by the tsunami in Japan and washed up on an Oregon beach has been scraped clean of seaweed, shellfish and other organisms and sterilized with torches to prevent the spread of invasive species.

In this photo provided by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department, an unidentified worker burns off debris from a dock float on Thursday. The dock was torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami that washed up Tuesday on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore. Workers with shovels, rakes and other tools first scraped the structure clean, then briefly used low-pressure torches to sterilize the dock.

Chris Havel of the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation says a dozen volunteers on Thursday removed a ton and a half of material from the dock, and buried it above the high water line.

Scientists who examined the marine life clinging to the dock said there was a chance some could establish a foothold in Oregon if they weren't disposed of properly. One in particular was a kind of edible seaweed known as wakame.

The dock washed up Tuesday at Agate Beach.

This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department on Thursday, shows exotic mussels attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore.

This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department on Thursday, shows an invasive species commonly known as "wakame" attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore.

Human remains expected

An oceanographer who tracks flotsam says West Coast beachcombers may find floating athletic shoes with human bones as more debris from the Japanese tsunami washes ashore.

Curt Ebbesmeyer told a recent audience he expects 100 sneakers with bones in them. He's advising anyone who discovers human remains to call 911 and wait for police.

Ebbesmeyer also said he's expecting as many as 100 vessels in the next couple of years. He expects the amount of tsunami debris to peak in October and that the debris could attract a number of Japanese visitors to the Olympic Peninsula.

Significant items that have shown up already. Here is AP’s list:

1. The 164-foot fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru was in Hokkaido, Japan, and destined for the scrap heap when the tsunami dislodged it from its mooring. It drifted across the Pacific Ocean until the U.S. Coast Guard sank it in April 2012 in the Gulf of Alaska after determining it was a threat to shipping and the state's coastline.

2. Newport, Oregon, residents awoke Wednesday to find a 66-foot concrete and metal dock on the shore at Agate Beach along the central coast. The 165-ton dock was one of four that broke loose from the port of Misawa in the tsunami. Two other docks from Misawa are still missing.

3. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle was discovered inside a white container that washed up April 18 on Graham Island, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. It was traced back to its owner in Japan by its license plate.

4. Cleanup workers near Craig, Alaska, in late March found a basketball with the words "Kesen chu," short for Kesennuma Chugakko or Kesennuma Middle School. Kesennuma is a major fishing port that was hit hard by the tsunami. Officials with the Marine Conservation Alliance in Juneau said the basketball was being packaged Thursday to be returned to Japan, along with a care package for students at the school still living in temporary housing.

5. David Baxter, a radar technician from Kasilof, Alaska, found a soccer ball in April 2012 on an Alaska island 110 miles south of the mainland. With the help of his wife, Yumi, who is Japanese and reached out to a Japanese reporter, the ball was reunited with its owner, a teenager who lost all his possession in the tsunami. A volleyball believed to be from Japan was also found on the trip.

On the Web:

Japan Tsunami Debris: Information and FAQs