British Columbia

Japan quake debris a jurisdictional mess for B.C.

The B.C. government says it will begin working with national and municipal officials this January to prepare for the massive wave of debris heading to Pacific Northwest shores because of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Catastrophe created 18 million tonnes of debris

Debris floats in the Pacific Ocean off the east coast of Japan, in this U.S. Navy photo taken just a few days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Steve White/U.S. Navy/Associated Press)

The B.C. government says it will begin working with national and municipal officials this January to prepare for the massive wave of debris heading to Pacific Northwest shores because of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Meanwhile, residents in the B.C. coastal community of Tofino are bracing themselves for the sad arrival of detritus from the devastating disaster, even while they debate amongst themselves whether the ruins have already started reaching the shore.

Julianne McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Management B.C., part of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, has confirmed the government is creating a Provincial Tsunami Debris Working Group.

She said the arrival of the debris, which some experts have argued covers an area the size of California, has raised some "complex jurisdictional issues," which the working group will clarify, so officials hope to identify key members by Jan. 6

"In most cases, the federal government has authority in the water and immediate shorelines, and in most cases the local authority becomes the lead if the debris washes ashore in areas above the high tide line," McCaffrey said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"Occasionally, in the case of hazardous or human remains, it becomes provincial jurisdiction — which has not happened, so we cannot speak to hazards or issues that do not exist."

The provincial government's announcement comes as one U.S. expert confirms some flotsam, like 250-litre Japanese fishing buoys, has already landed on Pacific Northwest shores between Oregon and Alaska.

Computer models produced by the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii had predicted that by the end ofSeptember, the debris field was still about 483 kilometres northwest of the Midway Islands, but scientists confirmed in a December website posting that some objects, like the fishing floats, could have already arrived in Washington state.

Community divided

Meantime, locals in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, wonder whether or not flotsam — like plastic water bottles with Japanese writing, toothbrushes and even socks tied to the tsunami — has already arrived.

Debris float in the harbour near Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan a day after the earthquake, which killed more than 20,000 people. (Kyodo/Reuters)

The massive flotsam field is tied to the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan March 11, a double disaster that left as many as 21,000 people dead and washed millions of tonnes of debris into the Pacific ocean.

The tsunami also swamped the Fukushima nuclear-power plant, leading to fears that some of the debris could be contaminated by radioactive material.

Perry Schmunk, mayor of Tofino, B.C., said he has no doubt that some of the debris he found on a recent beach walk with his family is tied to the tsunami. He plans to introduce a resolution to council this January calling for support from more senior levels of government.

Schmunk said everything he has found has Japanese writing on it.

"The most alarming thing is in 10 minutes I saw more debris than I've seen in four years total," he said.

Schmunk said a town like Tofino is not equipped to deal with such a massive influx of flotsam, noting it doesn't have enough staff nor enough space in the local landfill.

"I am . . . of the opinion that we need to be prepared for the worst," he said. 

Debris not always from earthquake

Yet others in town are not entirely convinced flotsam from the tsunami has arrived.

Jeff Mikus, a commercial fisherman for more than 20 years, said he's definitely not convinced the flotsam is from the tsunami, saying he hasn't seen any more debris on the shores or in the water than normal.

"I think people are just looking more now because, you know, it's coming," he said. "People are more aware of it so they start seeing stuff on the beach and they think, 'oh, God,' and they see a little bit of, you know, some kind of Asian writing of some sort," he said.

Mikus said he regularly finds plastic floats, corks, water bottles and shampoo bottles, and added that most of the fishing gear he buys in B.C. is made in Japan and has Japanese markings on it.

Mikus also said people forget how many ships pass Vancouver Island and some of the debris could be coming from them.

"You'd think you'd see a lot of stuff that would have a lot more growth on it, algae and barnacles and whatnot after floating around in the ocean that long," he added. "The few pictures I've seen of stuff doesn't look like it's been in the water that long."

Mikus said he believes the bulk of the flotsam is still a long way away.

"There might be a massive cleanup going on here in a year or two."