Whatcom County should be mostly sheltered from the incoming and possibly hazardous debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, according to officials monitoring the tons of material heading for the state's shorelines.
Local officials remain vigilant, however, as parts of houses, boats and other pieces of the destruction in Japan have begun washing ashore with what appears to be increasing frequency.
"We're monitoring the situation and trying to receive as much guidance as we can from the state Department of Emergency Management," said Kent Catlin, deputy director of the county Division of Emergency Management. "At this point what we're being told is, we don't foresee a large influx of debris."
Computer models at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration don't show much debris slipping down the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then making the left turn toward Whatcom County, state Department of Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said. Ecology is working closely with the federal agency to monitor where the estimated 1.5 million tons of floating tsunami debris will end up. (Another 3.5 million tons sank off the Japanese coast, according to NOAA.)
"The models from NOAA are showing mostly impacts along the outer coast - not to say they couldn't happen in inland waters," Hart said.
A local environmental group independently monitoring the influx of debris has also determined that it probably won't reach Whatcom County.
"There's not a lot of likelihood of seeing much of anything of this debris in this area," said Matt Krogh, North Sound baykeeper at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. If any debris washes up locally, Krogh said, it most likely will be on the west side of Whidbey Island.
As of Tuesday, June 19, NOAA had recorded 404 reports of possible tsunami debris in the United States, from Alaska to Canada. Forty of those reports came in over the past week, Hart said. Of those, nine were confirmed to have come from the tsunami. A count specific to Washington state hasn't been made.
Despite the recent media attention given to debris reports, there is no reason to think the bulk of the material is coming in now, Hart said.
"The best we can say is, we don't know what's there, we don't know when it will come in and we don't know what beaches it will affect," he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a press conference Monday, June 18, that a "steady dribble" of tsunami debris is expected over the next few years that will require more money than the state has immediately available. 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 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."
Gregoire said she might be willing to release money from her emergency fund, which currently has more than $700,000 and was last tapped to address the state's whooping cough epidemic.
State and federal agencies ask beach goers to use common sense when deciding whether to remove a piece of debris. If the object is unidentifiable or appears to be hazardous, don't pick it up, they say. Instead, contact the appropriate agency (see box).
The governor said there's no reason to fear eating seafood or visiting coastal beaches. Health Secretary Mary Selecky said monitoring has found no radiation in salmon.
It is unlikely that any of the debris will be radioactive, according to officials. The state Department of Health said on its website that it had tested hundreds of pieces of suspected tsunami debris for radiation and found no contamination.
IF YOU FIND TSUNAMI DEBRIS
Report to email@example.com.
If safe, remove the item and recycle or properly dispose of it.
If you don't know what an item is, and it could be hazardous or contain oil, do not touch it. Report it to the National Response Center, 1-800-424-8802, and a state hotline, 1-800-OILS-911.
Large debris or a derelict boat should be reported to the Coast Guard, 206-217-6001.
Personal effects should be treated with respect and moved above the high-tide line if safe. Provide a detailed report to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is unlikely any debris will be radioactive. Questions about radiation should be directed to Radiation Protection at the Department of Health, 360-236-3300.
SOURCE: Washington Departments of Ecology. Health
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 360-715-2266.