JUNEAU, Alaska – The five West Coast states affected by debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan are about to receive an initial $250,000 each from a $5 million gift from Japan for cleanup.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is distributing the money to Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington and will allocate the remainder as additional needs arise. It's unclear how far the money will stretch for what some state officials and beach-cleaning groups expect to be a yearslong problem.
Alaska is preparing to ask NOAA for up to $750,000 in additional funds to help with cleanup this year.
Unlike other states where beaches are accessible year-round, many of the beaches targeted for cleanup in Alaska are remote or hard-to-reach, sometimes requiring that debris be hauled out by boat or even helicopter. There also is a narrow window for conducting the work, generally running into September. While some crews already have been out this year, poor weather has delayed the start of cleanup or surveillance in other parts of the state.
Even $1 million isn't sufficient to meet Alaska's needs, said Janna Stewart, a temporary employee with the state Department of Environmental Conservation assigned to the tsunami debris issue. Chris Pallister, president of the beach-cleaning group Gulf of Alaska Keeper, estimated based on what he saw last summer that cleaning 74 miles of shoreline on Montague Island in the Gulf of Alaska would cost in the "$10 million range."
In anticipation of receiving the $250,000, the state has been working on solicitations for debris removal and disposal and help in updating aerial surveys done last year. Stewart is hopeful the first of that funding can be awarded to contractors by late June.
The Japanese gift announced last fall was greater than NOAA's overall marine debris budget in fiscal year 2012, though $6 million has been requested as part of the president's 2014 budget proposal. And the pool of gift funds already has taken a hit with NOAA using $478,000 toward the cost of removing a dock that washed ashore on a remote beach on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
Some states, including Hawaii and Washington, have earmarked funding of their own to aid in the cleanup and response. The Alaska Legislature provided $1 million to Gulf of Alaska Keeper, but the governor — who has seen tsunami debris cleanup as a federal responsibility — has not yet announced whether he will keep that in the budget. The group has about $375,000 in grant funds, Pallister said.
It's unclear how much debris is still floating and what might arrive on U.S. shores. Pallister said there are indications the worst of the Styrofoam that washed up on parts of Alaska's shores is over. He and others have raised concerns about the material's effect on fish, birds or other wildlife.
William Aila Jr., chairman of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, said his state continues to see run-of-the-mill marine debris, a longstanding problem for coastal areas, along with things he attributes to the tsunami, such as oyster floats and boats. A large dock, similar to those that washed ashore in Oregon and Washington, moved through the island chain without reaching shore, he said.
One of his biggest concerns is the potential spread of invasive species that hitchhike on some of the debris. Aila said states will incur additional monitoring costs for this and would like to see federal assistance.
Of the more than 1,700 reports of possible tsunami debris along the western coast of North America and the open Pacific, just 29 have been definitively linked to the disaster, NOAA spokeswoman Keeley Belva said.