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Tsunami debris issues addressed by state

January 27th, 2012 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

A Friday panel discussion in Anchorage covering potential tsunami debris from Japan put several concerns to rest — for the time being — and shed light on some sensitive issues. But some in the Northwest Alaska region aren't convinced.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted the group, with representatives from various environmental, health and marine debris monitoring organizations.

A good deal of expertise graced the roundtable for the hour, and for the most part unanimously highlighted one thing — there is no current concern about radioactive materials traveling to Alaska waters as a result of the tsunami disaster in Japan last March.

Kristin Ryan from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation cited water and air testing in both Alaska and Japan, and said water tests just 30 miles off Japan's shores showed radiation levels as low as American safe drinking water standards.

"If the water is safe that close to Japan, you can be assured that the water 2,000 miles away in Alaska is most likely unaffected," Ryan said.

But it's still a concern for Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk, whose community reaches into the Chukchi Sea and regularly collects foreign debris on its shores.

"So we were concerned about the earthquake and the radiation that went into the water," Oomittuk said, "because we do receive Japanese debris, and the animals that we hunt are (from the) ocean, and we were concerned about the contamination getting into the food chain."

Oomittuk said the village of Point Hope has faced a number of concerns over marine health this winter, including a still unexplained outbreak of disease infecting and killing ringed seals. He said between that and fears of radiation, some villagers have stepped back from usual hunting practices.

"We're ocean people. We hunt seals. And now not too many people are hunting seals because they're afraid to eat them," Oomittuk said.

He said he and his fellow Point Hope residents need some solid feedback from the scientific community about their concerns before people will be comfortable with the harvest again.

Leaders from other coastal cities expressed less concern over this issue, such as Kivalina Mayor Tom Hannifan. He said he hasn't heard anything from fellow residents expressing contamination concerns, or worries about debris arriving.

Beachcombers encouraged to look for, return mementos

Another topic touched on by most of the roundtable presenters was the human aspect of the debris issue, and the need for a healthy dose of respect when handling it.

"This was first and foremost a human tragedy, before it was a marine debris question or science question," said Peter Murphy, Alaska coordinator of the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

He reminded listeners of the tragic scope of the tsunami, which was caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and claimed more than 15,000 lives. The wave peaked at 130 feet, and swamped hundreds of square miles. Murphy described the surge as equivalent to about 15 percent of the Anchorage area being inundated with water.

Murkowski and panel members expressed to future beachcombers a reminder that some debris could be mementos of homes and family members lost to the disaster, and those items should be kept safe and reported — along with any dangerous debris.

The Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation at provides details for reporting found debris and returning mementos.

Bulk of debris still far from shore

Much of this debris remains a long way out yet, and has a year or more to spread along the eastern Pacific.

The initial surge of debris Alaska will likely see in coming months will be high windage items — large pieces that have more of their surface area exposed to wind currents than they do to ocean currents.

It's not guaranteed that all marine debris found in the near future will be related to the tsunami.

While some of the flashiest dangers have been dispelled by recent reports, the entire discussion highlights the ever more complicated relationship human communities have with the sea — especially as marine food sources continue to share a coastline with the world of energy technology and exploration.

Even if his fear of radiation from this tragedy has lessened, Oomittuk said his greater concern for the sea's wellbeing remains.

"Our ocean is our garden," he said. "It's the center of our lives. That's why we're so protective of it. Whether it's offshore, or contamination or anything like that, we have a big concern."


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