A bipartisan bill sponsored by Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan to combat global marine debris got a positive shout-out Thursday from President Donald Trump and a cleanup organization trying to rid Alaska coasts of waste from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
Trump signed the Save Our Seas Act during a White House ceremony on Thursday, flanked by a group that included Sullivan and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, who also introduced the measure.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced the companion bill in the House, along with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon. Young was not at the signing on Thursday, but Young and Sullivan are both members of their chambers' Ocean Caucus.
The legislation renews the marine debris program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It adds a provision to loosen up future federal funding to clean up big debris events like the one caused by the tsunami. It also seeks to create international partnerships to fight ocean-borne waste.
"This is a really big deal," said Chris Pallister, co-founder of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group working to clean up Alaska coastlines.
Thousands of miles of the state's coasts remain littered with buoys, Styrofoam, bottles, road signs, household materials and all kinds of other junk strewn on beaches after the earthquake-spawned tsunami in 2011, Pallister said.
Only 100 miles or so of northern Gulf of Alaska shorelines, such as parts of Montague Island in Prince William Sound, have been cleaned, he said. Federal funding for the effort has been limited, though Alaska has more than half the nation's shorelines.
Pallister said waste drifting around oceans degrades into tiny bits such as microplastics, causing health concerns when those and other debris enters the food chain as fish, birds and other wildlife eat it.
"We're hoping this can help loosen up major funding," he said of the newly signed legislation.
The bill authorizes funding for the program for five years, at $10 million annually.
New provisions include allowing the head of NOAA to declare "severe marine debris events" and provide money for cleanup. It encourages the executive branch, led by the State Department, to research causes and solutions, and work with other nations to reduce the debris, including as part of future trade deals.
Speaking with reporters after the signing, Sullivan said much of the waste comes from a handful of Asian nations, including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The countries lack proper controls, and waste is bulldozed into rivers that carry it to oceans. More than 8 million tons of plastic trash is dumped into oceans globally.
Alaska is a big target for the ocean garbage, so the provision allowing declarations of severe events can help the state in the future emergencies, he said.
The measure won unanimous consent in both chambers.
During the signing, Trump lauded the effort, saying he was "very pleased" to sign a bill trying to stop the garbage from spoiling "some of the most beautiful beaches and oceans" in the world — those in the U.S.
Trump said his pending trade deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, includes unique commitments by the parties to cooperate on improving waste management and addressing land- and sea-based pollution.
"I can tell you Dan and Sheldon were very insistent on trying to get that into the USMCA, the new agreement we have with Canada and Mexico, and we'll be putting it into other agreements also," Trump said, gesturing to the senators behind him.
Trump said as president he'll do everything he can to "stop other nations from making our oceans into their landfills."
Pallister, with the cleanup group, said he's "thrilled."
"This is good not just for Alaska but for the entire country," he said. "You have a president who doesn't seem to be very environmentally aware but who is touting this, and that means something."