Cantwell pushes ahead on tsumani debris

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has pushed through new legislation intended to speed up the federal response to debris that washes ashore from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Added as an amendment to the Coast Guard authorization bill — HR 2838 — the legislation creates a plan and directs the administrator of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to begin coordination of debris cleanup if there is a “severe marine debris event.”

“Washington coastal communities are already facing the impacts of tsunami debris. We need the federal government to be an active leader and partner in developing comprehensive tsunami debris research, mitigation and cleanup plans,” the Democratic senator said.

The bill, which now awaits the signature of President Obama, orders the administrator of NOAA to form a task force to develop a tsunami debris cleanup plan. Within 30 days of the bill becoming law, the NOAA administrator must determine if the Japanese tsunami has produced a “severe marine debris event,” according to a statement from Cantwell’s office.

“The action plan would make tsunami debris cleanup more effective by coordinating and directing all debris removal in Washington state and across the West Coast,” according to the Cantwell statement.

NOAA would have to complete a comprehensive analysis about the debris’ economic and environmental impacts, and when and where it will arrive. The analysis, the Cantwell statement said, will “give Washington state coastal communities the information they need to understand the local impact of debris and how to best prepare for its arrival and removal.”

In a telephone interview, Cantwell said the importance of the bill is that it will provide for a full assessment of the risk from the debris, which already started showing up late last winter and spring on the Washington and Oregon coasts, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii and British Columbia.

NOAA’s partners around the country and in Hawaii have “shown all sorts of debris fields and huge impacts from it,” Cantwell said. “We don’t have access to that data.”

NOAA originally tried to keep some of that data classified, Cantwell said.

“We assume the assessment will show that there is an impact to our communities,” Cantwell said.

NOAA now estimates that about 1.5 million tons of debris dispersed in the Pacific Ocean from the March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan. Debris is predicted to show up on West Coast beaches intermittently during the next several years.

On Dec. 10, Cantwell joined five other senators in a bipartisan request for a $20 million federal investment for debris removal in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “Washington state’s coastal economy supports 165,000 jobs and nearly $11 billion in economic activity,” Cantwell said.

The action on the tsunami debris measure came as part of a package of three amendments to the Coast Guard bill that Cantwell wrote and sponsored.

One of the other amendments makes it more difficult for the Coast Guard to decommission the Seattle-based Polar Sea icebreaker, and the other required the Coast Guard to conduct a study to examine the risk that tar sands oil supertankers, tankers and barge traffic pose in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the straits of Georgia, Haro and Rasario. In November, there were two incidents involving tar sands oil transport ships in British Columbia waters.

Tar sands oil is a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil.

According to Cantwell, Canada intends to increase oil tanker traffic through the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca by up to 300 percent, with much of the oil being produced in Alberta. Cantwell said her amendment is designed to determine “what we think the Coast Guard needs to give fishermen and coastal communities a concept of what that activity and traffic could mean.”

“A supertanker oil spill near our shores would threaten Washington state’s thriving coastal economy and thousands of jobs,” Cantwell said. “This bill will provide crucial information for Washington coastal communities by requiring a detailed risk analysis within 180 days.”

Cantwell’s icebreaker amendment prohibits the Coast Guard from scrapping the Polar Sea until it submits a plan for maintaining the nation’s icebreaker capability and proves that scrapping the vessel is the most cost-effective option.

The bill preserves the option of refurbishing the Polar Sea and “supports shipbuilding jobs in the Puget Sound as America determines the most cost-effective way to meet our mission requirements for icebreakers,” Cantwell said. The President is expected to sign the bill, Cantwell said, vowing to “continue to do work to make sure this tsunami debris issue has been addressed.”