MONTAGUE ISLAND, Alaska--Cans of Japanese sports drinks, bottles of shochu and fishing buoys with Japanese letters lay wedged between the driftwood on the beaches of this uninhabited island.
Debris from last year’s tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeastern region has now reached Alaska. And while a number of feel-good stories have emerged about belongings being returned to their Japanese owners across the Pacific, the wreckage is creating huge problems in terms of cleanup costs and environmental impact.
Members of a local conservation group, the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, arrived on Montague Island via helicopter on May 28. The island of about 800 square kilometers is located in the Gulf of Alaska, more than 5,000 kilometers from the tsunami-hit Tohoku region.
The island seems to have attracted more floating objects than other islands in the area due to the ocean currents and winds. From the helicopter, an object that was likely a refrigerator was spotted on the beach.
On the ground, Chris Pallister, 59, president of the group, quickly identified a big, orange chunk as urethane spray building foam.
Pallister, who has been involved in cleaning up marine debris on the island for the past 10 years, said the amount of Styrofoam and urethane had increased significantly from a week earlier. He said he has never seen such a volume of those materials on the island.
A yellow buoy bearing two Japanese letters spelling “Seki,” perhaps the name of the owner, had washed ashore next to a piece of light blue plastic that was labeled “combustible.”
Also amid the piles of driftwood was a can of boat engine oil with the name of the product written in Japanese, as well as plastic bottles and containers bearing Chinese, Korean and Russian letters.
Most of the debris in the past that reached Montague Island came from China, the Korean Peninsula and Russia. But the volume of wreckage from Japan is increasing, according to Pallister, who used to practice law specializing in environmental issues.
Pallister pointed to something on the beach that he said he is quite concerned about: a red, kerosene container with a label warning: “Keep fire away.”
He said he is also worried that the arrival of debris from Japan will negate the group’s past efforts to clean up the beaches.
About 1.5 million tons of debris--roughly 30 percent of the estimated total washed out to sea by the tsunami on March 11 last year--is expected to reach Alaska, other western U.S. states and the Canadian coast, according to an estimate by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based on data provided by the Japanese government.
Experts had forecast the debris would arrive in 2013, but changes in wind directions sped up the movement, said Patrick Chandler, special programs coordinator for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
One report that generated much interest was the discovery of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a Miyagi Prefecture license plate on an island in British Columbia.
Beaches in Hawaii and the west coast of North America are expected to be hit by tons of tsunami debris in the coming months.
Pallister plans to entrust the flotsam collected by the Gulf of Alaska Keeper to recyclers or bury it.
The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to dispose of marine debris. Much more money will be needed to clean up the tsunami debris that continues to flow in.
However, the state of Alaska is not receiving much financial support for the effort from the federal government.
“The role of the federal government in emergencies is to assist states,” Mark Begich, a senator from Alaska and the chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee, said in a hearing in Washington on May 17.
NOAA officials, however, said that they lack the budget to clean up remote areas, such as Alaska and Hawaii.
The federal government earmarked $4.6 million (about 370 million yen) for the marine debris program for fiscal 2012. But the NOAA faces a 25-percent cut for the program for fiscal 2013.
Residents in Alaska have argued on the Internet that the United States should have Japan cover the cleanup work.
Pallister dismissed those calls, saying Japan may come to the rescue of the United States if it is hit by an earthquake and tsunami. But he added that it will be a big help if Japan contributed engines and other equipment to local boats to help clean up the area.
Montague Island is a sanctuary for many species, including bears, deer and seafowl. There have been reports of animals dying after mistakenly swallowing plastic and other waste.
The arrival of the tsunami debris could increase the number of such incidences.
Particularly worrisome is Styrofoam, which animals could mistake for eggs of marine birds.
If hazardous materials are dissolved in the sea and consumed by salmon, the toxins could move up the food chain and contaminate animals and birds, conservationists warn.
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