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Alaska, federal officials still aren't prepared for tsunami debris

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Trash from the 2011 Japan earthquake in tsunami litters the Beach River area of Montague Island in late August 2012.
Chris Pallister, Gulf Keepers of Alaska
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Japanese debris washed up on Kodiak Island's Narrow Cape, photographed on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Marine debris works its way into the nooks and crannies on the south end of Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound.
Photo courtesy Airborne Technologies
Volunteers at Yakutat clean up debris from the Japanese tsunami in 2012.
Photo courtesy of the Yakutat Salmon Board and Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation
Trash from the 2011 Japan earthquake in tsunami litters the Beach River area of Montague Island in late August 2012.
Chris Pallister, Gulf Keepers of Alaska
Trash from the 2011 Japan earthquake in tsunami litters the Beach River area of Montague Island in late August 2012.
Chris Pallister, Gulf Keepers of Alaska

It's been more than a year since a massive tsunami hit Japan, ripping its coastline to shreds and devastating the country.

In the weeks and months after the Japan disaster, the world watched as nuclear plants failed, and fears turned to the possible radiation leaks and how they would impact Asia and the world.

It was another lesson in how small the world is, how our boundaries mean nothing when it comes to tides and air currents. When seals sprouted blemishes in alarming numbers this winter, many pointed the finger at the radiation leaks, though scientists could find no direct correlation.

So understandably, the nation's focus was tuned pretty closely to the risk of radiation. Meanwhile, a flotilla of debris was headed for North America. And of course the concern was whether the debris was radioactive.

No, said scientists, no worries there. And it's not going to show up for more than a year.

In recent weeks, however, the debris has begun to hit the beaches of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Surprise!

First it was novel. There was a big "ghost ship", and the U.S. Coast Guard got to blow it up. Then there was a motorcycle and a soccer ball. People were able to track down the owners in Japan and return these items. What fun! Maybe this debris stuff isn't so bad, right? It's the ultimate beachcombing opportunity.

But now reality is starting to set in, and it's not nearly so fun. Reports from Montague Island are coming in, and it is being described as a "staggering mess." News reports say that the scope of the disaster is far earlier and more massive than what anyone was expecting. The debris that is coming in now is mostly light stuff that was blown by the wind. There is a lot more coming, people say.

So here's the question. How is it possible with all our technology, all the planes flying overhead and satellites trained on our ocean, in a day and age when you can look on Google map and see your neighbor's mailbox color, how is it possible that this is a surprise?

According to news reports, there is almost nothing set up at this point to deal with this trash as it comes ashore. We were all so worried about radiation that we forgot the reality of the situation. Hundreds of tons of trash and debris are heading toward our beaches and we have little to no plan to clean it up.

And here's the kicker — while we were focused on the radiation risk, other risks were floating our way, under the radar. Some people who have visited sites where the debris is washing up said there are barrels of unknown substances floating up on our beaches. In some cases, sheens were seen on the water around these items.

"There is no clear plan from my perspective," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) told KTUU. Begich is planning to hold a committee hearing to ask the Obama administration "what the heck is going on," the station reported.

Oh my. Really? Have we learned nothing from disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Here's what we know about cleaning up beaches and waters in the remote areas of Alaska. It costs a lot of money, takes a lot of people, and produces varied results even when oodles of resources are thrown at the effort.

So we are inexplicably way behind the curve on tackling this issue, and it could cost millions to begin to address this environmental disaster. If we don't get this stuff off our beaches quickly, it will get sucked back out into the ocean, and continue to harm our environment for years to come.

Perhaps the problem here is that we still think in terms of our own little worlds. A disaster in Asia is sad, and we all watched the footage and covered our mouths in awe. But there is no one, or at least no one with enough power to actually do anything, paying attention to the world's global environment closely enough to mandate that we be ready to deal with such disasters.

Unfortunately, our lack of preparation thus far has put us in a catch-up position and it's the plants and animals and people who depend on our ocean's environment who will suffer.

Carey Restino is editor of The Bristol Bay Times, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.