Governor Says Fed Help Needed With Tsunami Debris

By RACHEL LA CORTE | June 20, 2012

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire announced Monday a state plan to address tsunami debris that reaches the state’s coast from Japan but stressed that federal help is needed.

“We don’t have the resources at the state level to do what we’re going to have to do here,” she said at a news conference at a beachside hotel in Ocean Shores.

Gregoire said she and other western states have reached out to the federal government letting officials know that they will be seeking financial assistance, but so far have not received a response. She said the state is working with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in trying to secure funds.

Gregoire noted that the Department of Ecology has been approved to use $100,000 from its litter cleanup account for tsunami debris removal. However, a “steady dribble” of tsunami debris is expected over the next few years that will require more money, though she said the cost of the cleanup is unknown.

“We are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep our beaches and our coastal communities clean and safe,” she said.

Gregoire announced a “Clean Shoreline Initiative” to be led by state’s top emergency management leader Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, and to include the state Department of Health, Ecology and other agencies.

“Everyone will be part of the solution,” Lowenberg said.

Gregoire said the debris is not yet at a level where she needs to call out the National Guard or seek money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We really don’t know what to expect right now,” she said. “I can’t declare an emergency until I actually have one on my hands.”

A commercial crab fisherman in attendance at the press conference told the governor that one of his vessels recently picked up 500 pounds of debris that was wrapped together and reported it to federal officials. He said fishermen like him are concerned about the security of their fixed gear, like crab pots.

“If there’s a significant amount of debris, that gear can be swept away,” said Larry Thevik, of Ocean Shores, noting that such an impact on fishermen would also impact the local economy.

Gregoire promised him that his concerns would be addressed in the plan that is currently being worked on by the state team.

Gregoire said that she expected a draft from the team within the next two weeks, and depending on what they determine, she said she’s willing to look at releasing money from her emergency fund, which currently has more than $700,000 and was last tapped to address the state’s whooping cough epidemic.

“How much I release depends on that plan,” she said.

Gregoire later joined officials from the Department of Health as they demonstrated Geiger counter testing of a large piece of Styrofoam that had washed up outside the hotel recently. No radioactivity was evident.

While not all of the debris washing ashore is from the tsunami, Gregoire and other state officials urged the public to report what they find to officials.

In March, Gregoire joined the governors of Oregon and California and the premier of British Columbia in announcing that they would collaborate to manage debris from the tsunami that might wash up along the west coast. Gregoire had already separately signed a similar agreement with B.C. Premier Christy Clark in February.

The Department of Health has been testing any items that have washed onshore for radioactive activity. Last week officials said they were testing samples taken from a 20-foot boat that could be debris from the Japanese tsunami. The boat was found beached at Cape Disappointment State Park on Friday.

The Department of Ecology will screen materials that could be hazardous and is working with local governments and volunteer groups to pick up debris as needed.

The governor said there’s no reason to fear eating seafood or visiting coastal beaches. Health Secretary Mary Selecky says monitoring has found no radiation in salmon.

The state also is monitoring for invasive species, but Gregoire says she’s not aware of any arriving on tsunami debris.

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