As the heavier debris from the March 2011 tsunami that struck Japan makes its way across the Pacific Ocean, scientists warn of the ecological threat of toxic, chemical debris headed towards North America's western coast.
Chemical contamination "could be a real threat," Dr. M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist at conservation group the Nature Conservancy, tells CBC News. "Finding one drum of, say, paint thinner, or something you might find in your garage, it's not hugely toxic. But if you find 50 of them all washed up on a rocky shore and then breaking and leaking, then you have some problems."
"This is more hazardous than oil," Chris Pallister of the Gulf of Alaska Keeper Organization warns the Homer Tribune. "Entire communities went into the ocean — industrial, household chemicals, anything you can think of in your garage — and it's all coming here. This is like a great big toxic spill that is widely dispersed."
Chris Pallister, who's been cleaning marine debris on Alaska's Montague Island for 15 years, told CNN, "The influx of tsunami debris really concerns us mostly because of the amount of Styrofoam that's coming with it and also the toxic chemicals that are coming. We think they're going to have a really detrimental impact on the environment out here long term."
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The spill and spread of industrial chemicals across the coastline of British Columbia is a possibility as slower-moving tsunami debris from Japan approaches the west coast, according to experts observing its movements.
The risk of chemical contamination is sizable, especially considering that many of the tsunami-affected areas on the Japanese coast were industrial and used many different types of toxic chemicals in manufacturing operations.
"[Chemical contamination] could be a real threat," said Dr. M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist at conservation group the Nature Conservancy. "For example, it's very hard to imagine how 50 drums [filled] with something could all show up at the same time, unless it's an event like this. That's where it can be a little dangerous. [...]
Dianna Parker of the NOAA notes that the majority of the debris is heavier and slower-moving than the more buoyant items that have been found on coastlines in recent months. Objects that ride high, such as plastic containers, bottles and buoys, travel much faster than intact and possibly dangerous industrial chemical containers. The bulk of the debris pulled out to sea by the tsunami is still suspended north of the main Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. [...]
The Nature Conservancy and the NOAA believe that publicity surrounding the debris field will bring attention to the fact that ocean-going debris from the tsunami merely added to an ever-growing pile of junk accumulating in the Pacific and on shorelines. The estimated five million tonnes of debris from the Japanese tsunami represents less than one per cent of what's already out there in the Pacific.
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NOAA map as of May 15, 2012 of tsunami debris
Mother Nature Network: Japan tsunami debris looms off U.S. coasts
The Pacific Ocean is no stranger to litter, thanks to a big maritime mess known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But for the past 14 months, a different type of debris has been sailing around the Pacific — not the familiar bits of plastic found in the garbage patch, but some 5 million tons of detritus that washed offshore after the deadly Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. [...]
While it pales in comparison to the disaster that sent it there, some worry all this debris could pose environmental dangers for the U.S. and Canada, possibly even on par with an oil spill. "This is more hazardous than oil," Chris Pallister of the Gulf of Alaska Keeper Organization tells the Homer Tribune. "Entire communities went into the ocean — industrial, household chemicals, anything you can think of in your garage — and it's all coming here. This is like a great big toxic spill that is widely dispersed." [...]
Nonetheless, many people from Alaska to California say tsunami debris is already flooding in, and they want immediate action. "The time for talk is over," Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said in a recent statement. "The prospect of debris coming to our shorelines is not just a theory, it is here." Begich and other lawmakers have pushed the Obama administration to allocate emergency funds to study the tsunami debris, and to reconsider a planned budget cut for NOAA's Marine Debris Program.