Japanese Tsunami and Hurricane Sandy Officially Declared “Severe Marine Debris Events”

Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Blog, Coastal Debris | 0 comments

Tsunami-dock2In an unsurprising but oddly delayed news, NOAA has officially declared the Japanese tsunami a “Severe Marine Debris Event,” which would qualify west coast communities for greater federal help and cleanup coordination. The earthquake-caused tsunami in 2011 resulted in millions of tons of debris to be washed into the Pacific Ocean. The bulk of the waste is expected to wash up on North America’s west coast between 2013 and 2015. NOAA announced a similar finding for Hurricane Sandy.

As tsunami debris has begun to arrive on U.S. coastlines, the responsibility expense for cleanup has been falling primarily on states and localities. As the threat offshore gets ever closer, several key members of Congress believe that the federal government’s role is still ill-defined and severely underfunded. The federal government has been tracking debris and has been responding to particular response needs, but the new designation should result in a stronger and more formal federal role.

NOAA’s decision was essentially forced by an amendment attached to the Coast Guard reauthorization bill passed in December of last year. The amendment essentially orders the Administrator of NOAA to form an interagency task force to develop a tsunami debris cleanup plan if the debris constitutes a “severe marine debris event.”  The amendment didn’t go any farther than current federal law requires for such events, but it put a 30-day deadline on the NOAA director to make the designation.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who sponsored the amendment, noted in a press release, “Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and nearly $11 billion in economic activity. Washington coastal communities are already facing the impacts of tsunami debris.”

In applauding NOAA’s severe event designation decision, Cantwell said:

This is a major breakthrough in our ongoing fight to get support to Washingtonians responding to tsunami debris. This severe marine debris designation means the federal government should be an active leader and partner in developing research, mitigation and cleanup plans. Washington’s coastal communities have already responded to some major tsunami debris and more is on the way. This designation means we’ll be better prepared and equipped to protect our coastal economy when it hits.

The designation alone does nothing to close a funding gap for the debris cleanup costs on the horizon. In an oversight hearing last May,the Mayor of a small coastal community in Washington said in a written statement that his city only has one dump truck. “we are too small and woefully under-budgeted to address a moderate to heavy debris event.”

To this end, Cantwell and five other west coast Senators have made a bipartisan request (pdf) for some $20 million in appropriations to be dedicated to tsunami cleanup efforts. However, cleanup funding — like everything else — is entangled in budget and sequester negotiations, and the outcome is anyone’s guess.



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