Japanese tsunami debris washing ashore in US; cleanup costs piling up

Who will pay to have debris removed?


More than 15 months after a powerful magnitude 9 earthquake triggered a tsunami in Japan, some of the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris is starting to wash up on U.S. beaches. Among the items: a soccer ball in Alaska, a fishing boat in Washington State and a large dock in Oregon.

Cleaning up beaches is usually done for free by volunteer groups, but this kind of global garbage is different.

“We have a fabulous network of Oregonians that care for their coast and will emerge to help remove debris,” says Charlie Plybon of the Surfrider Foundation. “But we need money for the eventual disposal of that debris.”

The Oregon Parks Department agreed to pay a contractor $84,000 to dismantle and dispose of the 66-foot long steel and concrete dock. That’s more than half the state’s beach cleaning budget for two years.

Washington State has set aside $100,000 for tsunami debris pickup knowing it’s not nearly enough. Now it's looking for help from the other Washington. “The cost of the debris cleanup is going to be unknown at this point,” says Gov. Christine Gregoire. “The primary financial responsibility for the cleanup lies with the federal government.”

But so far the feds have told the states they’re pretty much on their own. An official with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testified in front of a U.S. Senate panel saying a federal funding plan has not been made and in most cases the local governments will have to pay.

That’s not sitting well with West Coast lawmakers. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, introduced a bill that would provide $45 million in federal money for debris cleanup. “This is an emergency,” says Begich. “We would see no different if there was a tornado, a hurricane or earthquake. We would be right there assisting.”

The difference is this disaster is slow moving and widespread. The U.S. Coast Guard did sink the ghost ship.

Meantime, the Canadian government is helping British Columbia, which had a motorcycle and trailer drift on shore. But it’s only the beginning. The debris, believed to weigh as much as four Empire State Buildings, will arrive over the next three years. The first big wave is expected in the fall when storms bring a lot more than rain and wind to the coast.

Some groups have estimated the total coast of tsunami debris cleanup will top $200 million.

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.