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Preparation key for tsunami debris, minister says

Jul 20 2012

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake is attempting to calm fears that the coast would soon be overwhelmed with Japanese tsunami debris carried here on ocean currents.

"The amount that we actually have to deal with in B.C. is much less than I think people fear," said Lake by phone from Ucluelet, where he discussed the issue with officials and community leaders.

Preparation is key, Lake said, "because [debris] will not come in a nice regular rate. - We have to have a plan that's scalable, so we can react to something that's unusual if that were to occur."

It was originally estimated that 30 million tonnes of debris was carried to the sea from Japanese communities after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The estimates have been scaled back to less than 1.5 million tonnes, said Lake.

Half that amount is expected to sink or remain caught in ocean currents indefinitely, while the rest could hit the North American coast from California to Alaska.

Lake lauded the preparations underway in Ucluelet, where an army of volunteers are beachcombing and collecting debris.

More than 200 kilograms have been collected so far.

The community is so involved with the project that it is building a float made of debris to be part of the parade for Ucluelet's summer festival, Ukee Days.

Two tsunami debris bins are located in the public works yard for volunteer cleanup groups to drop off material, said Karla Robison, Ucluelet's manager of environmental and emergency services.

Grade 11 and 12 students from Ucluelet Secondary School's geography class are assisting in the program.

The debris will be sorted and recyclable items diverted from the landfill. Other materials will be chipped, compacted or shredded.

"They've had a tremendous local response," said Lake of Ucluelet's preparations.

Lake said his role "is to find out what's going on on the ground and assure them that provincially, federally, our co-ordinating committee is working with them - [and] assure them that we are not expecting them to shoulder the whole load."

It's clear that small coastal communities' landfills will not be able to handle the amount of debris headed their way, "nor would it be fair to expect them to do that," Lake said.

The province is still working out the roles and responsibilities of various partners. An implementation plan on the collection and disposal of debris is expected to be set by mid-September.

The debris is expected to wash up on local shores for years to come, Lake said.

"Some of those beaches are inaccessible and we would not want to put people in harm's way in order to handle that material.

We'll get the more accessible beaches first - [and] rely on the public and volunteers to help us with this."

The risk of radioactive material - contaminated by the meltdown at the Fukoshima nuclear facility - coming ashore is very small, Lake said, "well below what you would get on an airplane ride from here to Hawaii."

However, Health Canada is carrying out regular monitoring, said Lake, and locals will receive training on how to use equipment that detects the presence of radioactive materials.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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