• Summer clean-up efforts to focus from Montague Island to Kenai Peninsula’s Gore Point
By Naomi Klouda
Chris Pallister’s worst nightmare came true over the weekend when he took a first look at the outer islands of Prince William Sound on a flight to check for snow thaw.
Beaches were exposed from ice, but a whole lot of other flotsam – large chunks of wall insulation, hundreds of gas canisters – were there as well.
For 50 miles or more, massive amounts of debris litter the beaches. Black snarls of fishing nets and canisters that may still contain oil, fuel and kerosene. Carcasses of urethane foam torn out of buildings in the Japanese Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck last spring also washed ashore.
On May 5, the Gulf of Alaska Keepers had planned to get started cleaning beaches. This is why Pallister was checking on the progress of break-up. He is the president of the Gulf of Alaska Keeper Organization, a group that monitors 17 beach cleanup sites and 122 miles of coastline. Over the past 10 years, GOAK gained an idea on what constitutes the normal haul of heaved up trash – they’ve collected 1 million pounds.
“What we are seeing is magnitudes more. In my opinion, this is the single greatest environmental pollution event that has ever hit the west coast of North America,” Pallister said Tuesday morning. “The slow-motion aspects of it have fooled an unwitting public. It far exceeds the Santa Barbara or Exxon Valdez oil spills in gross tonnage and also geographic scope.”
Homer’s Alaska Center for Coastal Studies Special Projects Coordinator, Patrick Chandler, is helping Pallister organize efforts in the massive task ahead. Chandler’s group has been at work on marine debris pick-up for 27 years, and has some of the most comprehensive experience along Cook Inlet.
The goal is to get the toxic products off the beach as quickly as possible so it doesn’t wash back into the water. The two beach debris experts, Pallister and Chandler, are talking about this kind of a scenario: the debris will need to be picked up and dumped in piles above tideline, then barged to port, most likely Homer, and disposed of properly from the Kenai Peninsula.
In order to do that, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Coast Guard is asking Pallister to train his crew in hazardous material disposal. “This means, we won’t get out to the beaches May 5 like we planned,” he said. “It will set us back at least a week or more.”
GOAK has a crew of 10 full-time people, but there is no funding to provide more than that, he said.
All summer long, AGOK scours beaches from Montague Island to Gore Point. “We may need to clean strategically, because of the problems with this stuff, the toxicity of it. We’ll have to change our strategy to get Styrofoam off and chemical waste products picked up and taken away from the surf zone,” Pallister said.
NOAA officials are careful to call found-beach trash “suspected tsunami debris,” and are still urging the public to document debris in photos and by indexing specific sites.
The Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council received information over the weekend from Cordova based Dave Janka of Auklet Charters that pilots are reporting the outer coast of Montague Island being hit hard by Japanese tsunami debris.
“The Prince William Sound Science Center and NOAA have also received reports of larger than normal amounts of marine debris for this time of year,” PWSRC Stan Jones, director of administration and external affairs. NOAA has requested that if anyone sees debris they believe may be from the Japan tsunami, that they report sightings to disasterdebris@NOAA.gov. Include what, when, where and as much detailed information, including pictures, you can.
Since so many state and federal agencies tend to get involved in an environmental catastrophe, Pallister said it will be important to think logically in the days ahead.
“Especially the agencies are loathe to say for certain this is tsunami trash, but there is no question. We clean 17 monitoring sites every year and another 122 miles of coastline. We have a really good idea of what is coming in. What we’re seeing is magnitudes more. A tremendous amount more,” Pallister said. “Then into the kinds of differences – cherry red fuel cans – kerosene canisters – we’ve never seen those before. All over the place – hundreds of them.”
Japan allows floats made of Styrofoam, something not seen much of among American mariners. These vary from five to 30-gallon size floats.
“There are thousands of them when you look along the coast,” Pallister said. In a typical year, GOAK finds the big black egg-shaped floats, about 20-30 of those. This year, Pallister saw more on one beach then in his entire life.
“The thing that stands out to me is the amount of Styrofoam. Great big chunks – eight feet long to small broken up pieces. Urethane foam from walls that were destroyed. It’s an obscene mass. No way, in hell, that this is not tsunami debris,” he said.
GOAK believes the debris is the work of a winter process. “But other than some of the broken up stuff, the big stuff hasn’t been hammered yet. That makes me think it hasn’t been there long. Bears chew that up and spread it all over the place. It’s very toxic.”
The amount of chemical waste has been slow to dawn on coastal people, he warns. The cannon-sinking of the unmanned floating Japanese vessel Ryou Un Maru was a particularly unwise move on the part of officials, Pallister said.
“That was so ill advised to sink that ship. There’s lots of fuels, Styrofoam, insulation, freezers, microwaves, all that plastic will pop to surface,” he said. “It was stupid to sink it like that. It might take take 50 – 100 years, but eventually it will float to the surface.”
A sustained cleanup – not one that sweeps in like Exxon officials after the Valdez Oil Spill – will be needed, Pallister warns.
“We need a cleanup that is economical and environmentally friendly. It would be good to increase NOAA’s marine debris grant program. That’s a 1-1 match for leveraging local funds. The money can go further that way. We would have people on the ground for as long as we it takes,” he added.
The geographic scope from California to the Aleutians means the potential for much greater tonnage than the toxic effect of the Exxon Valdez, he believes.
“This is more hazardous than oil. Entire communities went into the ocean, industrial, household chemicals, anything you can think of in your garage and it’s all coming here,” Pallister said. “This is like a great big toxic spill that is widely dispersed. It will take a long time to clean. If not, it will be with us for generations.”
Editor’s Note: Patrick Chandler, the Center for Coastal Studies project coordinator, was able to get back to us only after deadline, since he was leading a field trip at Kasitna Bay Lab. He wants Homer and area residents who have asked how can they help to keep this mind:
“We need to find a use for these buoys. They are in perfect shape. They have great floatation – they floated across the Pacific Ocean – they’re going to last a while. We need to find a use for these things,” he said.
“If we need to dispose of the debris, then it’s better than having them in the marine environment. But if we could find any use for these buoys, either a person putting them to use on a boat or on a business project. Chris and I were talking about designing a dock out of them. I really want to figure that out, how to use this debris in a creative and positive manner that keeps it from cluttering up already much-needed landfill space. That’s how people can help us out for now.”
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