Hawaii Ill-prepared For Tsunami Trash

When a mysterious white substance washed ashore at Barbers Point in West Oahu, many people immediately visualized the destructive March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Could this be the first tsunami debris to arrive in Hawaii?

As it turns out, the material was Styrofoam and cement from a floating dock system believed to be from somewhere in Hawaii, possibly Keehi Lagoon.

State health officials said the Styrofoam that blanketed nearly a quarter mile of the beach was never a health risk to humans. Officials from the Department of Land and Natural Resources added that whatever is remaining will sink and become sediment that will not pose environmental hazards.

There are many who disagree. “Imagine young fish eating it, and it’s going to take 100 to 200 years for these beads to break down,” says Carroll Cox of Envirowatch, who found the debris while walking along the beach.

Cox takes it a step forward. “They’ll eat it, it collects in their fatty tissue, a larger fish comes and eats them and eventually when the fisherman comes, eats the fish, it poses a risk in that sense.”

It took crews and concerned beachgoers several days to remove the waste from the shoreline and tide pools. Some of the smaller pieces of Styrofoam were vacuumed into canisters.

This certainly wasn’t a crisis, but the incident begs the question: “Are we prepared for what’s coming our way?”

It’s been more than 14 months since the massive tsunami swept across parts of northern Japan, and federal officials are still not clear how to deal with the debris once it arrives en masse or which agency will take the lead. And, of course, the million-dollar question (or millions of dollars): Who will foot the bill to properly dispose the potentially toxic material?

Extensive studies and research show an estimated 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris is sweeping across the Pacific Ocean. Some of that material including plastics, household goods – even a rusted motorcycle has already reached British Columbia.

Computer modeling by University of Hawaii scientists show the real mass is more than halfway across the Pacific Ocean, and the “big arrival” could come as early as next year.

Are we prepared? Not even close. The assistant administrator from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently shared with lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the agency cannot pinpoint where, when and how much of the floating debris will make landfall. In fact, satellite images show the floating garbage is not as visible as it once was, suggesting it could be dispersing. That could lead to a more erratic arrival.

Hawaii officials have started to coordinate a contingency plan, but it is far from complete. There have been resolutions at the county level and lengthy discussions with state and federal agencies, but no one is sharing any details with the general public – and the clock is ticking.

We are far from being prepared for what many scientists believe is the inevitable: Tsunami debris will hit the U.S. shoreline, and some of that will land on Hawaii beaches. And when it does, it won’t be pretty.

This time it was only Styrofoam from a torn-apart dock landing on a small, isolated beach, and it was quickly removed with little expense. The next arrival could be something far more massive and environmentally unfriendly, and the costs … who knows?

Remember there is more than 1.5 million tons of debris sweeping across the ocean and, ready or not, it’s coming.