Hawaii has no plan for dealing with Japanese tsunami debris that has begun showing up in offshore waters, no task force to help coordinate federal, state and city response efforts and virtually no funding to deal with the issue.

But debris is starting to hit the shoreline here, and scientists expect the bulk of it will continue to wash up through the spring.

And that’s starting to worry state officials. William Aila, who heads the Department of Land and Natural Resources, says he expects to ask the Legislature for $2 million for tsunami response and cleanup when it convenes in January.

Meanwhile, federal officials say they are not sure exactly what happened to nearly a million dollars that Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye had pushed through Congress to deal with tsunami debris. Aila said Hawaii received none of it.

Last week, Japanese officials confirmed that a large, seafood bin floating off Waimanalo on Oahu was tsunami debris. And fishermen recently sighted a large dock with Japanese writing off the coast of Molokai.

Scientists don’t know how much debris is expected to impact Hawaii. But the refuse could harm delicate reefs and sea life, as well as harbor invasive species.

Jan Hafner is a scientific computer programmer at the International Pacific Research Center in Hawaii. He has been working with Nikolai Maximenko, the lead scientist, on tracking the debris for months. Their initial computer modeling indicated that most of the debris would begin showing up next year. But additional wind data sped up that timeline, said Hafner.

Maximenko has been raising the alarm about the marine debris since last year, telling Civil Beat in November, “this is an emergency situation, and the problem is that we don’t have emergency funds.”

In March, on the anniversary of the disaster, he told an audience at the University of Hawaii that lack of preparation continued to be a problem.

His warnings are proving prescient.

The huge floating dock sighted by fishermen is currently lost at sea.

Fishermen spotted the dock, estimated to be 30-feet by 50-feet, on three different days last week, according to a report from Hawaii News Now. Fishermen even recorded it on video. State officials are not only concerned about it containing invasive species, but local fishermen are worried about boat collisions.

Hawaii News Now said in a story last week it “contacted the Coast Guard, NOAA and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, all of which initially have pointed the finger at each other as to taking the lead on a response plan.”

DLNR has been unable to locate the dock. Aila said that the response time could have been better.

The department didn’t take steps to find the dock until the day after the last sighting, enlisting the Coast Guard to do a flyover of the area. But by that time the dock had likely been carried away by currents.

“It could have drifted 50 miles overnight,” said Aila.

He said that fishermen didn’t contact DLNR until late in the evening last Thursday, when the office was closed.

To speed response times, he said that DLNR was working with the state health department on a 24-hour hotline.

DLNR is the lead agency when it comes to tsunami debris, but it is also relying on other agencies including the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for help.

The Coast Guard is taking a hands-off approach, however.

Kurt Fredrickson, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard in Hawaii, said that crews only respond to threats to marine navigation.

He said that the flight to look for the dock was done in concert with another mission.

“We were already doing one thing, so we kind of looked out for it,” he said.

Aila said that DLNR also sent a helicopter to look for the debris on Tuesday, five days after the last sighting, and that he had put local fishermen on alert.

“They want to find it because it’s a treasure trove of fish,” he said.

The challenge is trying to stop the dock from washing up on shore where invasive species could be a major problem. The department hopes to be able to sink it at sea.

Feds Leave Funding Up to the States

Satellite images taken two weeks after the devastating Japanese tsunami that left more than 21,000 dead or injured, showed a huge mass of debris moving away from the shoreline. The March 2011 disaster swept millions of tons of debris out to sea.

Refuse such as styrofoam, a dock and household appliances have been washing up on the West Coast and Alaska for months. And Hawaii had its first positive identification of Japanese debris last week. The four-foot blue bin was confirmed to be tsunami debris.

Aila said that the debris is a serious issue for the department.

“My first concern is safety, my second concern is invasive species,” he said.

But funding for any sort of mitigation or cleanup has been a problem.

NOAA announced in July that it was giving $50,000 to five states affected by tsunami debris, including Hawaii. The amount outraged some state officials. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska called it “woefully inadequate.”

Last November, Inouye, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced that he had inserted $1 million for tsunami cleanup into the federal appropriations bill for the 2012 fiscal year that ends this month. But only $615,000 of that made it through federal approvals, according to federal officials.

Aila said that none of that money has been provided to the state.

NOAA officials couldn’t say specifically where the money went.

“We don’t have a specific breakdown, other than it went to tsunami-related response,” said Ben Sherman, a spokesperson for NOAA.

Aila said that the department has been asking the federal government for help since last year. He said that he was planning to ask the Legislature for $2 million next session for help with debris.

Peter Bolyan, a spokesperson for Inouye, said that the senator has also asked for $1 million for debris cleanup in the FY 2013 budget, which has yet to be approved.

Last month, lawmakers on the West Coast also introduced the Marine Debris Emergency Act that would expedite the federal approval process for states requesting emergency funds for marine debris.

And U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has inserted a provision into a federal spending bill that directs the U.S. Interior Department to work with other federal agencies to develop a tsunami debris task force.

While the U.S. government hasn’t been forthcoming with funding, Japan said earlier this month that it planned to contribute $6 million to help cleanup efforts in Pacific states and British Columbia. For the Japanese government, the overall damage from the tsunami is estimated at $300 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What’s the Plan?

Alaska, Oregon and Washington have been dealing with tsunami debris for months and have formed task forces to help coordinate efforts and cleanup plans.

Oregon has a task force that includes representatives from top federal and state agencies as well as lawmakers. Washington has a similar task force, and last week announced a response plan for dealing with different types of debris. In Alaska, Gov. Sean Parnell created a state task force to facilitate the tsunami debris response.

But Hawaii has yet to create a task force or come up with a state plan.

Aila said that there was a draft plan in the works, but said he couldn’t say when it would be completed.

While there is no task force in place, he said that DLNR staff have been designated to respond to debris issues.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, said that her agency’s primary job is to provide scientific resources.

“I think we are very much involved in providing scientific support and information and working with other agencies, particularly because one of NOAA’s mandates is protection of threatened resources, such as coral habitat, monk seals and turtles,” she said.

Morishige said that there are already measures in place for dealing with ocean debris, which has been washing up on Hawaii shores for years.

“It’s not a new issue,” she said. “There are protocols that state and county agencies have used to address certain types of marine debris.”

NOAA has also been tracking the debris. The agency estimates that about 70 percent of what was washed out to sea quickly sank, leaving about 1.5 million tons still floating.

The agency says that the debris is no longer in a mass, as photos initially indicated, but is now widely scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

According to NOAA’s website it’s taking a leadership role in dealing with the problem:

NOAA is leading efforts with federal, state, and local partners to collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to our natural resources and coastal communities.”

But NOAA’s spokesman says Hawaii residents shouldn’t look to his agency to undertake a major cleanup effort.

“There is not a mandate for NOAA to do marine debris cleanup,” said Sherman. “Our marine debris program is very small. It has a $4 million budget and 13 staffers.”

Keith DeMello, a spokesperson from Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said to expect regular updates on the tsunami debris, “led by DLNR and coordinated with other state and federal agencies, including the DOH, NOAA and the Coast Guard.”

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