In December a large Japanese dock washed up on Washington’s Olympic Coast and responders struggled against angry winter tides and bad weather to get to the remote beach. It’s a beach Ken Campbell visited last summer when he, Jason Goldstein and Steve Weileman set out on a three week voyage to document newly-arrived debris from the tragic tsunami and earthquake that rocked Japan in March of 2011.
Campbell: Well the Ikkatsu Project started out as an idea that a few of us wanted to go kayaking on the roadless coast looking for tsunami debris but essentially what we did was we went from Neah Bay, which is the northern end of the roadless coast.
EarthFix: The northwestern end of the country to be clear.
Campbell: Exactly. Down to Ruby Beach which is where highway 101 hits the coast again so it’s about 70 miles, 70+ miles of roadless coast. Our trip was about 110 miles because of backtracking and going out to islands and things like that, we ended up covering about 110 miles of coastline.
So a lot of the beaches we ended up going to, that we ended up surveying are really inaccessible, obviously inaccessible by car. Some of them are accessible by foot and people do hike it, but a lot of the beaches we focused on, tried to concentrate on, don’t get seen by hikers either.
EarthFix: And tell me what you were doing on these beaches?
Campbell: We were surveying these beaches. And by surveying we were using a NOAA protocol called standing stock survey where you measure out a section of beach define certain transects and then go ahead and count what’s in each transect.
EarthFix: And what were you finding?
Campbell: Lots of plastic. It is the number one form of debris - either foamed plastic or hard plastic, what we call styrofoam.
EarthFix: And you were also checking for radiation.
Campbell: Yes we were. We had a geiger counter with us and we checked everything that we came across. Didn’t find anything above normal background radiation but that’s kind of part of the process too.
EarthFix: So you’re paddling for miles every day and putting in at these remote snippets of sandy beach along the coast of the Olympic Peninsula… and then things get interesting.
Clip from the documentary: Mixed in among the flotsam that has come from other sources, the plastic bottles and the net floats, the buoys and the scraps of styrofoam, a few of the larger items that were washed to sea in March of 2011 are already here. On a windy rain-soaked stretch of sand not far from Cape Flattery, the team makes a discovery that immediately brings the magnitude of the human side of the tsunami story into clear focus.
EarthFix: OK you’ve got me. What did you find?
Campbell: That was early in the trip, not too far south of Cape Flattery we came across a beach we weren’t really surveying we just landed on the beach and were walking along kinda looking around at what was there and there was quite a bit of debris there and I started to notice lumber, milled lumber. It wasn’t too long before we were able to read some of the mill stamps on each piece of lumber, just like here, every piece of lumber has a mill stamp on it and we saw letters that indicated that it came from Japan. Our first thought was perhaps it washed off a boat, a pallet of lumber, but it had nails in it and it had obviously been put together at one point. And as we walked down the beach we found more and more and more of it until we got to the Northern end of this beach, there was a little hook there, with a big rock reef out in front of it, fairly low tide at this point. And there was a big pile of lumber at this point, intermixed with kelp and driftwood pieces, but a lot of milled sections.
We started going through it and came across a child’s potty seat, a piece of a dryer — a clothes washer and dryer. Stuff that was out of a medicine cabinet. We opened the top of these glass bottles and you could smell cherry cough syrup. There was an iodine bottle. And it slowly began to dawn on us that we were actually in someone’s bathroom. That this was a section of house that had probably drifted across relatively intact and then broken up on the reef and sure enough, as we walked out on the reef away from the pile of lumber we found the motor for the washing machine. Because it was so heavy it didn’t get carried up on the beach.
So, at that point it was less that we were looking through flotsam and more of an eery feeling of actually looking through someone’s house.
EarthFix: I think that was when it hit me in the documentary was seeing that image of the child’s pink potty training seat just sitting there on the rocks.
Campbell: Yeah, and honestly that was the one piece that really made it click - this is what we’re looking at.
EarthFix: Tell me about the other waste that you found, the other debris that you found - some of it was hazardous.
Campbell: Yeah every beach we came to in the first segment of the trip we found some container of some sort with liquid hazardous items in it. Acetone, solvents of one kind or another, kerosene, and these items even though we couldn’t carry them all with us, we did tag them all as hazardous, we did take them up above the high tide line and mark them with a GPS for later pick up.
EarthFix: Now to be clear, you’re not sure those are from Japan?
Campbell: Not necessarily. Most of them, I don’t think any of them had any English writing on them. Most of them had characters on them — whether it was Kanji writing or not, I can’t say.
EarthFix: Judging by the amount of shipwrecks that have happened along this coast over the years, if you were to try and go back with a larger vessel to collect some of this debris, since, as you mentioned, we don’t have roads to get there very easily, you’re also facing a pretty risky voyage, even today.
Campbell: Right, and honestly that’s not going to happen with some of these beaches. The way that these beaches are gonna get cleaned up, if and when they do get cleaned up, is going to be by helicopter. And the Surfrider chapter out on the peninsula has done that already. They had a helicopter clean up just last year and another one just recently and we’re hoping to do another one early in 2013, but that’s really the only way in there - you’ll have to send people in by foot to collect the stuff. The helicopter won’t land, it’ll just hover, and it’ll carry off the debris. Now it’s limited to 200 pounds a lift so last year they picked off a little over a ton, a little over 2,000 pounds. It was ten lifts going from a beach near Cape Flattery to Neah Bay and back ten times. And that’s how it’s going to have to be done and that’s not a cheap way to clean up a beach.
EarthFix: OK Ken, if you were in charge how would you be responding to the problem of tsunami debris washing up on U.S. coasts?
Campbell: If I were in charge. Well, I think the number-one thing government needs to do is admit that there’s a problem. And some places are on top of it. I think the Makah Tribe is definitely on top of it. The Quileute is on top of it for their sections of coastline. It’s difficult when it gets into places where it’s federally owned but there’s different federal organizations that are responsible for it and I totally get that. But there needs to be some kind of “OK, here’s the problem now let’s all work together to fix that.” And I don’t think we’ve gotten to that point yet.
EarthFix: There is the Marine Debris Task Force that’s multi-government agencies coming together to deal with the problem of tsunami debris. How are they doing so far from your perspective?
Campbell: It’s a whole lot better than it was a year ago, absolutely. I think that again, it will come back to funding. Right now NOAA has been able to give out $50,000 to five states, $250,000 total. That doesn’t go very far and we do have a generous donation from the Japanese government of $5 million which has yet to be allocated but that’s still going to go fairly quickly. It has to be perceived as an issue and has to be perceived as something needs to be done about it before anything is going to happen.
Ken Campbell is the director of the Ikkatsu Project. He’s written five books about kayaking.
Catch an upcoming showing of “The Roadless Coast”:
- Jan 15 - Quimper Unitarian, Port Townsend, WA
- Jan 26 - Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium, San Francisco, CA
- Jan 29 - Annie Wright School, Tacoma, WA
- Feb 6 - University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA
- Feb 13 - Grand Cinema, Tacoma, WA
- Feb 19 - Mountaineers Hall, Seattle, WA
- Mar 13 - Pickford Film Center, Bellingham, WA