U.S. Unsure What To Expect From Japan Tsunami Debris

By Amir Khan on June 11, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

Japan Earthquake
The debris from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and killed million should reach the West Coast soon, experts say. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The debris from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and killed million should reach the West Coast soon, experts say. Over 1 million tons of debris entered the Pacific Ocean during the catastrophe, and while some experts don't expect much of it to hit the West Coast, others expect a full-blown disaster.

"I think this 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," Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline, told the Associated Press.

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It's difficult to predict where tsunami debris will end up, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Associated Press. Wind patterns, tides and currents can break up some of the debris and push others to all corners of the globe. The NOAA estimated the debris spreading over an area three times the size of the United States, but cannot predict when or where it will make landfall.

"You have a unique experiment," Marcus Eriksen, a researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, Calif, which plans to sail through the Pacific and document the debris, told the Associated Press. "You have entire homes and all their contents ... anything you may find in a Japanese home could be floating in the ocean still intact."

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who has been tracking marine debris for over 20 years, told the AP that the West Coast can expect trash to make landfall in October, when fall storms begin.  He said cleanup plans need to be finalized by September, but that how much needs to be allocated to cleanup is yet to be determined.

The NOAA has $618,000 set aside for cleanup duties, but U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, (D-Alaska), wants $50 million over 4 years allocated to cleanup.

Pallister said that getting people to pitch in -- both from a monetary standpoint and as volunteers, will be difficult.

"You just don't have that visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to having oiled otters and drowned seabirds in that crude to get the public pumped up about it," he told the AP. "And even if you could get the public pumped up, again, you don't have that culprit to go after - a bad guy. It's kind of a tough one to deal with."

Regardless of how much is set aside or how many people help, cleanup may need to begin sooner than October. On Wednesday, a concrete and metal dock, 66 feet long and seven feet tall washed up on the shore of Oregon, proving that large amount of debris could be on the way.

"I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that's coming later," Pallister said, "and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won't be able to identify."  

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