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Tsunami Debris On Alaska's Shores Like 'Standing In Landfill'

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 10:51 am

Refrigerators, foam buoys and even ketchup bottles are piling up on Alaska's beaches. Almost two years after the devastating Japanese tsunami, its debris and rubbish are fouling the coastlines of many states — especially in Alaska.

At the state's Montague Island beach, the nearly 80 miles of rugged wilderness looks pristine from a helicopter a few thousand feet up. But when you descend, globs of foam come into view.

Chris Pallister, president of the nonprofit Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has been cleaning up debris that washes onto Alaska's shores for the past 11 years. Marine debris isn't a new issue for the state, but he says his job got a whole lot harder when the tsunami wreckage began arriving last spring.

"You're basically standing in landfill out here," he says, shaking his head in disgust.

He points to an area scattered with foam bits smaller than packing peanuts.

"This is what we're worried about. This Styrofoam is just going to get all ground up, and you can see there would just be billions and trillions of little bits of Styrofoam scattered all over everything," Pallister says.

Environmental Concerns

The trash isn't just an eyesore. Pallister says birds, rodents and even bears are eating the pieces of foam. Chemicals are also a worry. Among the debris, Pallister finds containers that held kerosene, gas and other petroleum products.

Sifting through the mess, he picks up a small blue bottle and unscrews the cap.

"I have no idea what this was. It looks like dish soap maybe," Pallister says. "But there's thousands of bottles like this up and down the coast, from small household chemical items to big industrial-size drums."

Last summer, the state paid for an aerial survey to inspect 2,500 miles of Alaska's coastline. Elaine Busse Floyd, who's with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, says there was tsunami debris on every beach photographed.

"They took over 8,000 pictures, and it was more widespread and in greater quantities than we even expected," Floyd says.

But, officially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded just five tsunami debris items in Alaska. The agency will only confirm an object if it has a unique identifier that can be traced back to Japan.

Limited Financial Support

Environmental activists and people like Pallister still maintain that the trash isn't being taken seriously enough.

So far, there has been little money for cleanup. Alaska's congressional delegation is working to get federal funds, but tsunami debris cleanup money was recently stripped from a bill for Hurricane Sandy relief.

Pallister admits that the tsunami debris doesn't have the visceral impact of the Exxon Valdez spill. There are no oiled otters or blackened coastlines. But the debris, he says, could be a big environmental disaster in the long run.

"In a lot of ways, it's a lot worse than the oil spill," Pallister says, "both in the geographic scope of it and the chemicals that are coming with it. And who knows what the impacts are going to be?"

If funding does comes through soon, Pallister hopes to be back on the beach this summer, slinging loads of debris and rubbish onto a barge and off the wild coastline.

Copyright 2013 Alaska Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.aprn.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last night, a powerful 8.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Dozens of homes were damaged and at least four people were killed. It is one of the stories that we're tracking this morning.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As much as we know so far, the impact of that tsunami is nothing like the devastation that Japan saw almost two years ago. The impact of that storm is being seen more and more in a place you may not expect - Alaska. Debris from the Japanese tsunami has been piling up on the state's coastline.

GREENE: It's been washing up on the shores of some other states as well. But in Alaska, it poses a particular problem. The debris is building up in remote places that are difficult to clean up.

Here's Annie Feidt with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: The Montague Island Beach stretches for nearly 80 miles of rugged and pristine wilderness. At least it looks pristine from a helicopter, a few thousand feet up. As we descend, a much different scene comes into view.

CHRIS PALLISTER: See how you can see all the white Styrofoam floats on this point out here - big globs of Styrofoam? That's all tsunami debris.

FEIDT: Chris Pallister would know. He's president of the non profit Gulf of Alaska Keeper. For the past 11 years, his group has been cleaning up marine debris that washes onto Alaska's shores. And when the tsunami debris began arriving last spring, his job got a whole lot harder.

By the time we land and step onto the pebble beach, he's shaking his head in disgust.

PALLISTER: You're basically standing in a land fill out here.

FEIDT: He points to an area scattered with foam bits smaller than packing peanuts.

PALLISTER: So you see what's happening here with all the crushed-up Styrofoam now? This is what we're worried about. This Styrofoam is just going to get all ground up and you can see there would just be billions and trillions of little bits of Styrofoam scattered all over everything.

FEIDT: The trash is not just an eyesore. Pallister says birds, rodents, and even bears are eating the foam. He's also worried about chemicals. Among the debris, he finds containers that held kerosene, gas and other petroleum products - even the little containers worry him. Sifting through the mess he picks up a small blue bottle and unscrews the cap.

PALLISTER: I have no idea what this was. It looks like dish soap, maybe. But there's thousands of bottles like this all up and down the coast, from small household chemical items to big industrial-size drums.

FEIDT: Marine debris is not a new issue in Alaska. But the Japanese tsunami has magnified the problem. Last summer, the state paid for an aerial survey to inspect 2500 miles of Alaska's coastline.

ELAINE BUSSE FLOYD: There was tsunami debris literally on every beach that was photographed.

FEIDT: Elaine Busse Floyd is with the state's division of environmental health.

FLOYD: They took over 8,000 pictures and it was more widespread and greater quantities than we even expected.

FEIDT: Even so, officially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded just five tsunami debris items in Alaska. That's because the agency will only confirm an object if it has a unique identifier, that can be traced back to Japan. So far, there's been little money for clean up. Alaska's congressional delegation is working on the problem, but funding was recently stripped from a bill for Hurricane Sandy relief.

PALLISTER: Look at this mess here.

FEIDT: Back on the beach, as the waves crash in, Chris Pallister says he doesn't think the problem is being taken seriously enough. He says the tsunami debris doesn't have the visceral impact of the Exxon Valdez spill, with oiled otters and blackened coastlines. But he thinks in the long run, it could be a bigger environmental disaster.

PALLISTER: In a lot of ways, it's a lot worse than the oil spill, both in the geographic scope of it and the chemicals that are coming with it. And who knows what the impacts are going to be?

FEIDT: Pallister guesses it will take years to clean up the mess in Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HELICOPTER)

FEIDT: As we take off on this day though, he has to leave all the trash on Montague Island behind. If funding comes through, he'll be back on the beach this summer, using helicopters to sling loads of debris onto a barge waiting nearby.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt, in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.