OCEAN SHORES — With weather-beaten fishing floats, a large Japanese light bulb and a Geiger counter in the foreground, Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined a new state response plan to handle the mounting amounts of debris floating ashore from last year’s tsunami in Japan.
In launching the “clean shorelines initiative,” the governor made no promises about additional money or federal assistance to cover the cost.
“While we expect debris to arrive slowly over the next several years, there’s a chance a major storm could wash up several thousands of pounds of debris at once,” Gregoire said in a statement announcing the response plan. “That will require far more financial resources than our state has available.”
Gregoire, who is not running for re-election and leaves office at the end of the year, used the Ocean Shores backdrop to express confidence that “our federal partners will recognize the need to ensure our beaches, our shellfish, and the livelihoods of those living on the coast are safe and protected.”
The governor also reassured the public that state Department of Health inspectors are continuing to test and monitor the debris for any signs of radioactivity and have thus far found no trace from the meltdown disaster at the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear plants that followed the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
The governor and several state officials toured a beach off the Damon Road approach and tested several pieces of debris with a Geiger counter. No radiation was found and it was unclear if the debris was even from the tsunami.
Gregoire said the federal National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration is the lead agency involved in tsunami debris response and has been tracking its arrival up and down the coast. The western governors, she said, were briefed by the agency last week.
“We are in a support role to make sure we are addressing the issues and concerns of our public at large,” Gregoire noted, saying the state was looking to NOAA to help with any issues such as fisheries management, coastal restoration and cleanup, and “supporting our marine commerce as we deal with the arrival of the tsunami debris.”
Debris already is arriving locally in bulk, Gregoire was told directly by Ocean Shores commercial crab fisherman Larry Thevik, who said his crew recently hauled in a 500-pound load of floats and debris that had “rafted together” from Japan. His biggest concern was that large amounts of debris could destroy crab pots and cause substantial damage for his crew and others.
“If there is a significant amount of debris, that gear can be swept away, moved to a different place, and it could interrupt our season,” Thevik said. “I’m hoping in your catalogue of what can happen and who can be hurt that you will recognize there is a need to be prepared to ask the federal government for federal disaster assistance.”
Gregoire thanked Thevik for reporting his find, which he had already passed on to NOAA, and promised that his concerns and the concerns of the fishing and shellfish industry would be addressed.
With a large dock washing up recently along the Oregon coast, a new concern has been the potential for invasive species being introduced into local waters.
The department of Fish & Wildlife, Gregoire said, is prepared to “respond and deal with any potential invasive species that reach our shores.” Just over the weekend, the agency’s invasive species expert was on the scene where a small Japanese fishing boat washed ashore off Long Beach.
State Health Secretary Mary Selecky also said tests have been conducted on returning steelhead and Chinook salmon and there has been no radiation detected. Razor clams also were tested with no traces.
“Know that we are committed to working with the coastal communities to provide our expertise and advice as this issue continues,” Selecky said.
The governor urged state residents to help in the effort to clean the beaches and support the beach communities.
“I’m here to tell people there is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to come to Ocean Shores or any of the other areas up and down the coast,” Gregoire said. “To the contrary, come on out. And if you value your beach, be a part of the cleanup.”
The Department of Health, Gregoire said, will continue to monitor the debris.
“For the public at large, let me repeat that we have no readings to date that are out of the ordinary and we don’t expect to find any in the future,” she said. “Scientists are telling us that tsunami debris was already well offshore before there was a release of any radiation from the Japanese nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, we will continue to check debris to make absolutely sure it poses no public health hazard.”
State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, also attended the governor’s event and said he’s seen an increase in curiosity about the debris in his 24th District, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and a part of Grays Harbor County.
“I’m finding folks are going out to see what they can find,” he said. “Obviously, we have to be safe and coordinated on what we find, but I think there is a curiosity factor that is actually going to bring people to the beaches.”
“There might be a silver lining to this on the tourism side,” Tharinger said.
Gregoire warned of a “steady dribble” of tsunami debris onto the West Coast for the next few years, based on the latest NOAA predictions.
“Ultimately, the cost of the debris cleanup is unknown at this point,” Gregoire said. “The primary financial responsibility for cleanup lies with our federal government, and that’s something where we have been working closely with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, among others, to ensure that happens.”
Gregoire’s announced plan does include $100,000 from the state Department of Ecology litter cleanup account, but there is no money beyond that and the plan relies mostly on volunteers to actually do the cleanup.
“Let’s face it, depending on the amount of debris, we’re going to have to rely heavily on volunteers,” Gregoire said. She lauded efforts by the Clean Coast Alliance to organize a coast-wide beach cleanup in April, and the Grassroots Garbage Gang of Pacific County for its upcoming cleanup on July 5, and said more of those efforts will be needed.
“I want to thank the individual Washingtonians who are out there picking up the recent arrival of Styrofoam,” she said. “Whether it’s from Japan or not, we have yet to be able to discern that. But it is a good thing to ensure that our beaches are clean.”
Although Gregoire ruled out requesting a federal disaster declaration or a special session to ask for additional funds, she also acknowledged the long-term costs should be borne by the federal government.
“But when we see an instance where a boat comes ashore, or whether large debris comes ashore, or whether a drum comes ashore, that’s our responsibility, and we’re ready to respond.” Gregoire said.
Meetings have been going on for the past six months, she noted, calling for a “unity of effort” in handling the cleanup, including local, tribal, state and federal governments and agencies. In April, Ocean Shores hosted a meeting of many of those same bodies.
A coordinated response plan, she said, will be ready to be put in place next month “or earlier if needed.”
The Emergency Management Division under Major General Timothy Lowenberg will be the lead of the effort on the state level. The rest of the response team will include the Departments of Health, Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, Parks, Natural Resources and others as needed. Gregoire said the state also is reaching out to and working with response officials in British Columbia, Oregon and California.
“We will send a team out, if necessary, depending upon what you might find,” Gregoire said. “Let me be clear that the best thing to do is follow your common sense when you find any debris on the beach, and remember safety first.”