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Senate’s First Tsunami Debris Oversight Hearing: ‘We All Want To Know What The Plan Is’
Posted on Friday, May 18, 2012 (PST)

This week during the first tsunami debris oversight hearing, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sought answers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on what the nation’s plan is to address the threat tsunami debris poses to coastal economies up and down the U.S. West Coast.

 

“Our state, Washington state’s coastal economy produces 10.8 billion dollars in economic activity and it supports over 165,000 jobs. So anything that threatens that coastal economy is something we’re going to pay a lot of attention to,” Cantwell said at Thursday’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee hearing. “For our commercial and recreational fishing and our vessel construction of ships, our tourism, our thriving eco-system, we all want to know what the plan is.”

 

Cantwell continued: “We need something much more elaborate to understand and stop this debris before it actually reaches our shores. …Many people said we wouldn’t see any of this impact until 2013 or 2014. And now ships, and motorcycles, and this various debris is showing up and people want answers.”

 

Robert Andrew, mayor of the City of Long Beach, said in a written statement submitted for the record to the subcommittee that his city only has one dump truck. “The City of Long Beach itself has literally one dump truck – we are too small and woefully under-budgeted to address a moderate to heavy debris event,” Andrew said.

 

He said, “My three main concerns for our local area and region relate to fisheries, tourism, and maritime navigation. If all three were negatively affected, it would in essence be a ‘triple whammy’ on our local and regional economies. In combination with the general downturn in the economy, an uncoordinated or unmanaged response to this debris event is a blow that Long Beach and the Columbia-Pacific region cannot endure.”

 

Cantwell also asked NOAA about the risks to the Pacific Northwest’s tuna and salmon populations.

 

Cantwell said that David Kennedy, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, did not have an adequate answer.

 

The fishing industry is a major employer in the region, she said. The shellfish industry alone employs 3,200 people and contributes $270 million to the state’s economy each year. Washington state is a national leader, growing about 88 percent of the West Coast’s $110 million annual harvest.

 

“Marine debris adversely affects our fisheries,” said Matt Doherty of United States Seafoods of Seattle.“It’s obviously bad for fish and the environment but it also can harm fishing operations and large debris can pose a safety threat.”

 

In response to a question from Cantwell about NOAA’s ability to track tsunami debris, Kennedy said the agency had struggled to locate a tsunami debris field and had used “commercial and available satellite imagery” and some classified satellite imagery in its search. In her follow up, Cantwell said researchers and scientists in the Pacific Northwest would be able to predict where the debris would land if better data was available. She committed to follow up with the agency to determine why better data was not available.

 

On March 30 in Seattle, Cantwell and Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) called on President Obama to allocate emergency resources to mobilize National Science Foundation research to help track and respond to tsunami debris. Expediting NSF grants would help coastal communities get more specific estimates of what might hit shores – and when.

 

On March 7, Cantwell urged the head of NOAA to step up programs to analyze the potential danger of tsunami debris. During an Oceans, Fisheries, Coast Guard, and Atmosphere Subcommittee hearing, Cantwell questioned NOAA head Jane Lubchenco on the agency’s readiness to address the tsunami debris poses to Washington state’s coastal economy. Cantwell says Obama’s FY13 budget proposed a 25 percent cut to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

 

Last November, Cantwell secured Senate Commerce Committee passage of an amendment to address the threat approaching tsunami debris poses to economies up and down Washington’s coastline. Cantwell’s amendment would identify the debris as a unique threat and require the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere to develop an interagency action plan to help prepare our region for this potentially serious problem.

 

Cantwell says she will continue “to fight to ensure a plan is in place to address the threat tsunami debris poses to Washington state’s coastal economy.”

 

After a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, an enormous amount of debris was washed out to sea. One year later, very little is known about the composition of the debris and there is currently no federal plan in place to address a large-scale marine debris event such as the approaching tsunami debris.

 

Begich wants the federal government to provide at least $45 million to clean-up debris that will land on U.S. shores.

 

In a letter to the president, the Alaska Democrat says the money should go to community groups to conduct clean-up work.

 

Begich says he's disappointed by a lack of an administration-wide plan to respond.

 

While NOAA has been tracking the problem, Begich says it has limited resources and cannot alone be expected to handle what he calls a "monumental crisis."

 

Begich says the debris that's already washed ashore in Alaska is just the beginning of what he calls a "slow-motion environmental disaster that will unfold over the next several years."

 

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