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Concerns grow as tsunami debris continues to arrive in US

HONOLULU — Concern is growing about the potential effects on the environment and on boating as more tsunami debris from Japan reaches Hawaii and the western coast of Canada and the United States.

Japanese officials confirmed Friday that a container fished out of the ocean Wednesday off Windward Oahu between the Makai Research Pier and Rabbit Island was tsunami debris. The 4-foot-tall blue bin was spotted floating 150 yards offshore. It was encrusted with crabs and barnacles and contained dead birds.

In addition, officials continued to look Friday for a floating concrete dock, about 50 by 30 feet, reported by Maui fishermen and last seen Wednesday afternoon about 15 miles northwest of Molokai.

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Whether the dock is tsunami debris had not been confirmed, but the fishermen who found it reported finding Japa­nese writing on its deck and that it looked similar to a dock that washed ashore in June in Oregon and was confirmed to be tsunami debris.

The sighting of the dock heightens concerns about an increase in debris and the potential hazard to boaters in Hawaii waters.

Federal officials were trying to find the dock and put a tracking device on it, said Ben Sherman, a spokes­man with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While the dock wasn't in shipping lanes, Sherman said the Coast Guard issued a warning to mariners.

"Our concern is the safety of the public and whether (the debris) is carrying aquatic species," he said.

The Japanese consulate general's office in Hawaii confirmed Friday that the container found Tuesday floating off Windward Oahu came from Y.K. Sui­san Co. Ltd., a fishing and meats product business in Miyagi prefecture, a region devastated in the March 2011 tsunami, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said.

It was first spotted by an observer tracking monk seals and was brought to the Makai Pier in Wai­ma­nalo, north of Sea Life Park. Inside were marine specimens commonly found with Pacific-wide flotsam, but there were no invasive species.

Sherman said officials have confirmed that Japa­nese tsunami debris has reached 12 locations in Canada and the United States, including Hawaii.

The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept 5 million tons of debris into the ocean but that 70 percent sank offshore, leaving 1.5 million tons floating, according to NOAA.

NOAA officials said there is no estimate of how much of that debris is still floating after more than a year.

Federal officials said many items are scattered across an area of the North Pacific roughly three times the size of the U.S.

The items include buoyant materials, sports balls, the floating pier in Oregon, a motorcycle inside a container, fishing nets, lumber, plastic, household items and possibly oil drums.

Items could make landfall anywhere from Alaska to California and Hawaii or get pulled into existing floating garbage patches.

NOAA is collecting tsunami debris information at sea from aircraft, satellite and vessels, and efforts are under way to assess and plan for the debris.

While Oregon and Washington state have created hotlines to report Japa­nese tsunami debris, Stevens said Hawaii is working to develop one.

NOAA is providing $250,000 in grants to Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii, with each receiving up to $50,000 toward debris removal. But more than a year after the tsunami, the U.S. government and West Coast states have no comprehensive cleanup plan.

Q&A on the tsunami debris ...

QUESTION: When will the debris from the tsunami in Japan reach the United States?

ANSWER: Some debris has already arrived. NOAA’s tsunami debris models show that buoyant items may have reached the Pacific Northwest in the winter of 2011-2012. The bulk of the debris is likely still dispersed north of the main Hawaiian Islands and east of Midway Atoll. Beachgoers may notice an increase in debris on beaches over many years, in addition to marine debris that normally washes up, depending on where ocean currents carry it.

Q: Is the debris dangerous? Should I avoid the beach?

A: Most marine debris is not harmful, but beachgoers are encouraged to remain aware of their surroundings and handle any debris with safety in mind. If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it. If it appears hazardous, please contact appropriate authorities. Boaters are also encouraged to stay alert, especially at night, because large debris can be a hazard to navigation.

Q: Is the tsunami marine debris radioactive?

A: Radiation experts say it is highly unlikely that any tsunami-generated marine debris will hold harmful levels of radiation from the Fuku­shima nuclear emergency. Some debris arriving on the West Coast has been tested, including items known to be from the tsunami, and no radioactive contamination above normal levels was found. Marine debris in Hawaii has been monitored since April 2011, and no radioactive contamination above normal levels has been found.

Q: What should I do if I see debris?

A: If you see small debris, like bottles, aluminum or Styrofoam, remove the debris from the beach and recycle as much as possible. Larger, hazardous or unmanageable debris could be a safety risk and should be left alone and reported to local authorities. Marine debris items or significant accumulations potentially related to the tsunami can also be reported to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with as much information as possible (including its location, the date and time you found it, photos and other relevant descriptions).

Q: How much debris is out there? Is there a debris field?

A: The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean but that 70 percent sank, leaving 1.5 million tons floating. There is no estimate of how much of that debris is still floating, now that it has been at sea for more than a year. The debris is no longer in a mass. Rather, many items are scattered across an area of the North Pacific that is roughly three times the size of the mainland.

Q: What kinds of debris should we expect?

A: While it is not known exactly what debris is still floating at or near the ocean surface, it likely includes highly buoyant materials. So far, items that have been previously confirmed to have come from the Japa­nese tsunami include vessels, a buoy, sports balls, a floating pier and a motorcycle in a shipping container. Other types of debris that could wash up include floating debris such as fishing nets, lumber, plastics, household items, foam pieces and possibly chemical or oil drums. To view NOAA’s debris handling guide, go to marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/debris_handling.html.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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