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Alaska senators get behind bill to clean up America's trashed coastlines

People collect trash on a beach in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, during a National Park Service beach debris cleanup during the summer of 2015. (Sean Tevebaugh / NPS)

WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators and a bipartisan group of colleagues introduced a bill Wednesday aimed at managing the problem of marine debris off America's coasts and in inland waterways.

A new bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday would provide a route to funnel more money to states plagued by marine debris — the millions of tons of trash that drifts toward U.S. shores, littering coastlines and tangling in fishing nets.

The bill focuses on using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's authority to authorize more funding for cleanup and response to marine debris. Like declaring a disaster, a governor could request a declaration — and matching funds — from the NOAA administrator.

The bill also encourages the State Department to engage with countries responsible for much of the world's marine debris and focus on reducing the trash going into the ocean.

Much of the world's plastic comes from China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, and 8 million metric tons of new plastic ends up in the ocean every year, according to experts.

Last year Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, held a hearing in the Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, which he chairs, on the issue of marine debris. Then, he and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, talked of finding "bipartisan consensus" for action.

At the time, Chris Pallister, president of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said that cleaning the most impacted shorelines in Alaska would cost at least $100 million. One area of shoreline in the state required cleanup of 30 tons of plastic trash per mile. And that was just one of many, Pallister said.

Pallister said that 90 percent of Alaska's marine debris, by volume, comes from foreign countries, via dumping, lost cargo or sunken fishing and cargo ships.

The new bill was introduced by Sullivan, Whitehouse and Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, Chris Coons, D-Delaware, Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, Gary Peters, D-Michigan, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina.

"It is time for our government to hold accountable the countries responsible for the majority of the debris in our oceans," Sullivan said. "This bill encourages the Trump administration to forge alliances with these countries and to take a stand against the dangerous levels of debris in our oceans and make sure that they do not reach America's coastlines."

"Marine debris threatens critical species and habitats, litters our shorelines, and hurts coastal businesses," Booker said. "Our bipartisan bill authorizes NOAA to continue and expand its work to address this serious problem, and I look forward to working with Senator Sullivan and our other colleagues to secure additional funding for this program."

The issue hits home for Alaska more than many other states, Murkowski said, noting that the state has more coastline than the entire Lower 48 combined.

"Healthy oceans are vital to a healthy economy and all aspects of our lives in Alaska, and it is essential we address the growing issue of marine debris," she said.

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