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Toxic tsunami debris will flood Alaska shores

Fuel drums and floats are just part of the first wave of tsunami debris bound for Alaska shores.
Photo courtesy Chris Pallister
Styrofoam is strewn along the wrack line at Beach River on Montague Island in this photo taken in late April.
Photo courtesy Chris Pallister

Very few people recognize and appreciate the scale of the environmental disaster that is about to befoul the western North American coastline, particularly Alaska's.

A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate stated that 1.5 million tons of tsunami-generated debris will hit the North American west coast. That translates into 30 billion pounds. If only 1% of that reaches Alaska's shores, 30 million pounds of largely plastic and toxic debris will flood our sensitive inter-tidal ecosystem. Our predictions are that Alaska will receive closer to 15 to 20% of the debris over a period of years.

In addition to all the plastic and other solid debris, not many realize that millions of containers of hazardous material are coming our way. When one considers that entire cities with all their home garages, auto repair shops, fuel stations, stores, warehouses, industrial plants and everything in between flooded into the ocean, you can comprehend how many containers of chemicals swept out to sea. Those that did not rupture immediately will most likely survive their North Pacific transit and will be deposited upon our high-energy shorelines. If they are not immediately removed, the containers will spill their contents in sensitive inter-tidal ecosystems. Over time, plastic debris will be UV degraded and pounded into tiny particles by our high-energy beaches. When that occurs, a stew of plastic toxins will then be mobilized into the biosphere causing grievous harm for generations. Styrofoam is special concern since it begins to crumble and degrade immediately upon hitting the shoreline.

What we see unfolding is a slow-motion environmental disaster that will far exceed any past pollution event ever to hit the west coast of North American, including the Exxon Valdez and Santa Barbara oil spills. This is not exaggeration or hyperbole. We have purposefully stated that to the press knowing it to be true and that it could help stimulate a response.

Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) is a non-profit whose primary mission is combating the marine debris (MD) issue in the northern Gulf of Alaska (GOA). We work on the problem full time with a highly trained and competent cleanup crew. We work closely with NOAA, the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation and the Chugach National Forest.

GoAK recently began a multi-year partnership with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to address the marine debris problem in the oil spill footprint area.

Our assertion of disaster in the making is true for many reasons.

First, tens of thousands of miles of shoreline will ultimately be impacted by this event. Beaches from California to the Aleutians, including Hawaii, will be trashed with toxic debris. So will Canada's west coast. In addition, debris swept through Aleutian Island passes by the Alaska Coastal Current will eventually cross the Bering Sea to foul the Russian eastern coast.

Second, the tonnage of debris associated with the tsunami-generated spill exceeds any environmental disaster this nation has ever faced, far surpassing any oil spill.

Third, unlike spilled crude oil, plastic degrades over time to become more dangerous to the environment, not less so. As plastic is UV degraded and smashed into an infinite number of small bits on our high-energy shores, it eventually becomes tiny enough for small organisms to ingest. It then makes its way up the food chain, endangering all organisms in its path. Inherent chemicals in plastic are known among other nasty biological impacts to be mutagenic, carcinogenic, and endocrine disruptors. They also have been shown to cause sex changes and physical malformations in many animal species, particularly fish and amphibians.

Fourth, it must also be noted that, in addition to the billions of pounds of plastic debris, all of which contain inherent toxic chemicals, millions of containers of hazardous chemicals are about to hit our sensitive shorelines. Everything from tiny medicinal ampules to large containers of toxic industrial chemicals is floating our way. Countless containers that escaped rupture during the tsunami will eventually come ashore in our sensitive inter-tidal environment. Over time, and over such a large area, this will cause far more damage than any oil spill. This may be difficult to observe because of the nearly glacial pace of the tsunami debris' arrival, but it will occur nonetheless.

GoAK has warned repeatedly of the potential tsunami debris impact. From the evidence we gathered this past week, the toxic spill is already occurring. Lighter, nearly empty containers of chemicals are already here. The fuller, denser containers will arrive later, most likely over a period of years. This event has the potential to significantly damage fish and wildlife, and commercial, subsistence, and recreational resources for generations. We must act now. It does no good to ask people or agencies why they haven't already acted or why they don't have a plan of action in place. Instead, we must drive home how serious this matter is and must also ask what we can do to help prepare for this disaster.

Due to our concerns regarding the incoming tsunami debris, this spring GoAK surveyed northern Gulf of Alaska beaches from Cape Suckling east of Kayak Island west to the southern end of Montague Island. In late April, surveys from southern Montague Island east to Cape Suckling revealed that a staggering amount of tsunami debris already stranded on our beaches. We accompanied the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, NOAA and the Coast Guard to survey Montague, Hinchinbrook and Egg islands. The amount of broken pieces and bits of Styrofoam blue board, white board, and urethane spray-in foam insulation littering the beaches from crushed Japanese structures is nearly beyond comprehension. It is truly startling and many magnitudes worse than anything we have ever previously experienced seen.

Few organizations have more on-the-ground MD experience than Gulf of Alaska Keeper. We have surveyed beaches in the Chesapeake Bay area, in the Florida Keys, in Hawaii, and Alaska. Alaska, unfortunately, wins the prize with the dirtiest beaches. Even more unfortunately, the northern Gulf of Alaska is the worst. Our members have been cleaning area beaches and closely studying the MD problem here for years.

Nothing we've seen to date surprises us. The prevailing winds, coastal currents, deep ocean currents, tides, and typical winter storm tracks all conspire to rip debris out of the Pacific and drive it straight into the gut of the GOA. Then, geography and topography set the final trap. If you look at the GOA on a map, you will realize that it is an inverted funnel; with the help of the prevailing winds and the Alaska Coastal Current, immense amounts of debris are driven onto northern GOA beaches from Yakutat to Kodiak. Beaches along Kayak and Montague Island, numerous islands within Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula GOA coast, the Barren Islands, and the Kodiak Island archipelago will be hit hard. Topography then comes into play with the region's rocky, log-littered, brush-covered beaches, efficiently trapping debris. The rest of the GOA coast from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians will also be significantly impacted.

The cost to remove it from our remote, inaccessible, and often dangerous, beaches will be high. The plastic debris, particularly all the nearly infinite pieces of Styrofoam bits and millions of larger Styrofoam pieces, will be an incredible challenge to remove. However, of possibly greater immediate concern is all of the chemical waste floating onto our beaches. By law and for obvious safety reasons, the millions of containers of hazardous chemicals destined for the western US coast cannot be removed by just anybody. A person must be HAZMAT certified to handle hazardous material. Much of what comes ashore will be initially unidentifiable because the labels will be gone or because of the language barrier. A properly trained person must deal with these materials. Can you imagine the scope of doing that in Alaska? The ADEC and the United States Coast Guard have told Gulf of Alaska Keeper that our cleanup crew must be HAZMAT certified. It will be a time-consuming and expensive proposition to properly train and certify thousands of cleanup workers along the western United States. We need to get started before millions of pounds of hazardous material are improperly and illegally handled.

We are not suggesting that a military type industrial response to this pollution event is the proper approach for cleaning it up. The nature of the spill requires a long-term, economically-sustainable, and environmentally-friendly response. The tsunami debris will wash up on our beaches for years. Alaska has already been hit by the first wave of fast-traveling material such as thousands of buoys, Styrofoam of every imaginable type, 50-gallon drums, fuel cans and every type of empty or nearly empty container imaginable. The fuller, heavier containers will arrive later. That means most of the toxic chemicals are not yet here; how much later until their arrival is anybody's guess.

Our suggestions for responding to this environmental disaster are fairly straight forward. We have great faith in NOAA's Marine Debris Division. They have the necessary expertise and management skills to lead the response. However, they are seriously underfunded. Instead of the Administration's current proposed 25% budget cut, NOAA's marine-debris budget should be substantially increased. Given the scope and the long-term duration of this environmental tragedy, we seriously recommend that NOAA immediately be given $200,000,000 to fund their marine debris grant program over the next 4 years. Yes, that is 200 million dollars, to be diestributed over 4 years. Honestly, that won't be near enough, but it is a start. This will give NOAA the ability to immediately begin fielding teams to start the long term task of cleaning up the debris and removing toxic waste before it can begin to poison our shorelines. Given the geographic scope of this disaster and the expected long-term influx of tsunami-generated debris, this cleanup response will undeniably be a very expensive and lengthy proposition.

We further recommend that NOAA disburse the money in the form of competitively-determined matching grants. Because this is not necessarily only a federal problem -- state and private land will also be impacted, we further suggest that all MD cleanup grants require a 2 to 1 match, 1 part state and 1 part non-governmental to match the federal component. Alaska can certainly afford that. The non-governmental grant match could be comprised of private and corporate donations and in-kind contributions. Leveraging the funds in such a way will make the money go much further in these times of lean budgets. Furthermore, competitive grants will weed out the waste and inefficiencies associated with massive industrial-style cleanup responses.

We believe an economically-sustainable, environmental-friendly, long-term cleanup response can be designed and is possible right now using these ideas.

Chris Pallister is executive director of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, based in Anchorage. John Kennish is an environmental chemist at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Carey Bagdassarian is a chemist at William and Mary College.