09/04/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Japan Tsunami Debris Disposal To Be Paid For By Japan, According To Website

AP File
VANCOUVER - Officials in British Columbia are welcoming Japan's offer to pay for the disposal of tsunami debris washing up on the west coast of North America — but some say the cost of the clean-up is the least of the province's worries.

The bigger issue is how the "island of debris" currently drifting in the Pacific Ocean will be dealt with if it reaches the B.C. coast, said John Disney, the economic development officer for the Haida Gwaii community of Old Massett.

Through satellite images, Disney estimates the amount of materials that may arrive from the massive debris field is roughly the size of B.C., Alberta and half of Saskatchewan put together.

"If it does hit — because it might just sit out there for years — but if it does hit, I don't know what you do about it," he said in an interview Tuesday.

"There's no landfill on earth that's big enough to take it, so what are you going to do with it, where are you going to put it?"

Disney said he is also concerned that items in the debris field could contain toxic or radioactive elements.

As much as five million tonnes of debris were swept into the ocean when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, causing not only death and destruction, but a meltdown of one of the country's nuclear operations.

The Japanese environment ministry estimates that ocean currents will likely bring large amounts of debris to the Pacific coast starting in October. Some 40,000 tonnes of debris is projected to come within 10 kilometres of the North American shore by next February.

The Vancouver Aquarium has recruited about 2,000 volunteers to help clean up more of the debris that is expected to reach the shores of B.C., southeast Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.

The aquarium already conducts shoreline clean-ups across the country each year with the World Wildlife Fund. Dolf DeJong with the aquarium's conservation and education program says those clean-ups cost about half a million dollars annually.

"We're already seeing an increase in the type of (tsunami) material coming in," he said.

"If we need to access remote sites, and we need to get people in and get material out . . . there's going to be some increased costs associated with that."

Many anecdotal surveys of the debris field have been done, but more information is needed before a clean-up plan and its costs can be determined, said Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale.

"There's been virtually no sampling out in the debris field, nobody is quite sure exactly what is coming," he said.

"So it makes it hard to plan for cleaning anything up."

Haida Gwaii's remote location also poses a logistical problem, he said.

"Where do you send (the volunteers)? How do they clean up without imperilling human safety? What do we do with the stuff we do find and collect?" he said.

"There are a whole bunch of problems that need solving before we just willy-nilly run off and start cleaning up."

Nightingale said the Vancouver Aquarium will be pushing for a plan from the Ministry of Environment within the next 30 to 45 days.

Some larger pieces of debris has already started coming ashore.

In June, a nearly 21-meter-long dock floated ashore on an Oregon beach after it drifted across thousands of kilometres of Pacific Ocean.

In April, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle inside a shipping container washed up about 6,400 kilometres away on Graham Island, off the coast of B.C. reports Japanese officials are expected to inform Canada and the U.S. about its plans later this month.

Japan is not obligated to take care of such debris under international law.

But reports Japan sees the gesture as a way of expressing appreciation for the outpouring of support following the disaster.

Japan may also extend technical assistance for debris disposal through a non-governmental organization focused on coastal ecosystems.

Earlier this year, an intergovernmental committee was formed in B.C. to co-ordinate a response to the tsunami debris.

Environment Minister Terry Lake says he welcomes the Japanese government's help.

"We haven't had direct contact with the Japanese government on this topic, but we will be checking in with our Canadian counterparts because they would probably be involved in those kind of negotiations," he said.

Despite his concerns about the actual clean-up, Disney also said he was floored by Japan's generosity.

"That's amazing," he said.

"It's not like they did this to everybody, it's not their fault. We should be helping them."

(The Canadian Press, CHNL)

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