Tsunami Debris Problem Gets Worse in Alaska, with Little Clean Up Funding In Sight

The beach on the southeast side of Montague Island stretches for nearly 80 miles of pristine wilderness. At least it looks pristine from a few thousand feet up. As our helicopter descends towards the shore, big chunks of white polystyrene foam, similar to Styrofoam, come into view.

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage
Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

“See how you can see all the white Styrofoam floats on this point out here? Big globs of Styrofoam? That’s all tsunami debris… And there’s more Styrofoam out here. There’s no question,” Chris Pallister, president of the nonprofit Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said.

The group has been cleaning up marine debris that washes onto Alaska’s shores for 11 years. And when the tsunami debris began arriving last spring, their job got a whole lot harder. Pallister has visited Montague Island nearly a dozen times since then.  And by the time we land and step onto the pebble beach, he’s shaking his head in disgust.

“You’re basically standing in a land fill out here,” Pallister said.

Pallister points to an area scattered with foam bits smaller than packing peanuts:

“See what’s happening here? with all the crushed up Styrofoam? This is what we’re worried about, this Styrofoam is just going to get all ground up and you can see there would just be billions and trillions of little bits of Styrofoam scattered all over everything. And extrapolate that all up and down this coastline. It’s kind of an impossible job,” he said.

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage
Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The trash is not just an eyesore. Pallister says voles, birds and even bears are eating the foam. He’s also worried about chemicals. Among the debris he finds containers that held kerosene, gas and other petroleum products. Even the little containers worry him. Sifting through the trash he picks up a small blue bottle and unscrews the cap to inspect its contents:

“I have no idea what this was. It looks like dish soap, maybe laundry detergent, but it’s empty, which is maybe not a good sign.  There’s thousands of bottles like this up and down the coast, from small household chemical items to drum’s full of chemicals. Big industrial size drums,” Pallister said.

Marine debris is not a new problem in Alaska. But the Japanese tsunami magnified the problem. Pallister says the tsunami debris doesn’t have the visceral impact of the Exxon Valdez spill, with oiled animals and blackened coastlines. But he thinks in the long run, it could be a bigger environmental disaster:

“In a lot of ways its a lot worse than the oil spill. Both in the geographic scope of it and the chemicals that are coming with it. And who knows what the impacts are going to be?,” Pallister said.

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN - Anchorage
Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Officially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded just five tsunami debris items in Alaska. But the agency will only confirm an object if it has a unique identifier that can be traced back to Japan. The state of Alaska does not use the same strict standard. Last summer the state paid for an aerial survey to inspect 2,500 miles of Alaska’s coastline. Elaine Busse Floyd is acting director of the division of environmental health. She says the survey identified tsunami debris all along the flight path from southern Southeast, up to Prince William Sound and out the Alaska Peninsula:

“There was tsunami debris literally on every beach that was photographed. They took over 8,000 pictures and it was more widespread and in greater quantities than we even expected,” she said.

But so far there has been minimal funding for cleaning up the debris. Governor Sean Parnell didn’t included any tsunami debris funding in his budget. NOAA is figuring out how to distribute a $5 million gift from Japan for cleaning up the debris. And Alaska’s Congressional delegation is working to get federal funds. But tsunami debris clean up money was stripped from a bill for Hurricane Sandy relief that passed this week.

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Back on the beach, as the waves crash in, Chris Pallister says the debris could have serious impacts on fisheries and subsistence resources.

“I don’t know if it’s being taken seriously enough. I don’t think a lot of people who are going to be impacted by it know how bad it is right now. And until that gets out, maybe not much is going to happen,” he said.

Pallister guesses it will take tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the tsunami debris in Alaska. On this day though, he has to leave all the trash on Montague Island behind. We take off in the helicopter and head north along the beach. Pallister looks out the window at all the debris below and says, “it just goes on and on and on.”

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Annie Feidt is the broadcast managing editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atafeidt@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anniehere

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