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Environmental News


From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Is there any environmental risk from all that Japanese tsunami debris that is starting to wash up on the U.S. west coast?
—Bailey Thigerson, Seattle, WA

Some 1.5 million tons of debris is afloat in the Pacific Ocean as a result of Japan's March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Pictured: A 66-foot long dock from Japan that made landfall in Oregon in June 2012.

Photo credit: Wolfram Burner, courtesy Flickr

The Japanese government estimates that some 1.5 million tons of debris is afloat in the Pacific Ocean as a result of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. No one knows exactly how much of this debris will wash up on American shores or end up absorbed by the water column or trapped in mid-ocean gyres, but state coastal authorities from California to Alaska are readying response plans.

One certain threat is invasive species. Scientists from Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center confirmed the presence of dozens of species native to Japanese coastal waters—including barnacles, starfish, urchins, anemones, amphipods, worms, mussels, limpets, snails, solitary tunicates and algae—that were on a large floating dock in Japan that washed ashore at Agate Beach near Newport, Oregon in June 2012. According to researchers, the 66 foot long dock contained some 13 pounds of organisms per square foot, and an estimated 100 tons of living matter overall. While there is no evidence to date that anything from the float has established on U.S. shores, researchers fearing the worst but hoping for the best are continuing to monitor the situation.

Of course, what worries researchers more is that the dock may just be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in regard to what else might wash ashore. “I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that’s coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won’t be able to identify,” says Chris Pallister, president of the non-profit Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from Alaska’s coastline. He worries that the onslaught of debris will be “far worse than any oil spill ... or any other environmental disaster we’ve faced on the West Coast” as a result of the sheer amount and variety of debris and the wide geographic scope it is likely to affect.

Officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believe the Japanese tsunami debris has already spread over an area of the Pacific Ocean roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States. While some of the debris has already made landfall in the U.S., the bulk of it will take several more months to make it across the Pacific. Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has been tracking huge gyres of trash in the ocean for two decades and runs the Beachcombers’ Alert website, thinks the majority of tsunami debris will reach U.S. shores as early as October 2012.

Another concern: Researchers were “startled” to find detectable levels of radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in bluefin tuna, a favorite sushi fish, off the coast of California. While the levels of radioactive cesium were some 10 times higher than the amount measured in tuna off California in previous years, it is still below safe-to-eat limits in both Japan and the U.S. The researchers are continuing to study more bluefin tissue samples to see if elevated radiation levels persist, and are also looking into radiation levels in other long distance migratory species including sea turtles, sharks and seabirds.

CONTACTS: Hatfield Marine Science Center; NOAA; Beachcombers’ Alert.



Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal with New York City buildings switching over from heating oil to natural gas? Is this a trend in other U.S. cities as well?
—Mitchell Branecke, Yonkers, NY

Just one percent of New York City buildings burn noxious heating oil, but those structures create more soot than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined. A new program there will switch out those fuels with cleaner burning oil, biodiesel or natural gas.

Photo © iStockPhoto

Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that particulate matter is omnipresent there. Commonly referred to as soot, such particulate pollution is comprised of fine black particles derived of carbon from coal, oil, wood or other fuels that have not combusted completely.

Due to this preponderance of soot in the air, asthma rates in some parts of the Big Apple (like Harlem and parts of the Bronx) are sky high. Environmentalists have been pointing the finger for years at the dirty residential heating oil used by so many New York City buildings, many of which were built before natural gas was widely available. According to the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), just one percent of the buildings across the five boroughs of New York City burn noxious heating oils, but those structures send more particulate matter airborne than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined.

That’s why mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this past June that an innovative public-private partnership (known as NYC Clean Heat) between the city’s government and leading banks, energy providers and environmental groups would be putting up $100 million in financing and other new resources to help buildings there make the switch to cleaner fuels. NYC Clean Heat kicked off last year when the city ordered the phase-out of the dirtiest home heating fuels: No. 4 and No. 6 oils that are still used in some 10,000 New York City buildings and which create a significant air pollution hazard. Switching out those fuels with cleaner burning oil (such as No. 2), biodiesel or natural gas will go a long way toward meeting Bloomberg’s aggressive new “PlaNYC” goal of reducing soot pollution some 50 percent by 2013. The mayor’s office reports that the new restrictions will save 120 lives and prevent 300 asthma-related hospital visits a year, while generating some $300 million in construction activity in the short term.

Property owners interested in a clean heat conversion can access the funding, which is coming from a combination of city coffers and financial institutions including Chase, Deutsche Bank, Hudson Valley Bank, Citi and the Community Preservation Corporation. On the environmental side, EDF is offering technical assistance and outreach to buildings that are undergoing fuel conversions by making available a team of trained energy professional to help evaluate conversion options, coordinate with utilities and beef up energy efficiency measures. As for the utilities, Con Edison and National Grid, the two primary providers for the New York City metro area, have agreed to upgrade their natural gas infrastructure to make it easier and cheaper for buildings to make the switch. And Hess Corporation, the city’s largest residential heating oil provider, has begun to offer customers new incentives to switch to natural gas, ultra-low sulfur No. 2 heating oil and biodiesel.

Large numbers of buildings in several other older U.S. cities, mostly in the Northeast, still rely on dirty heating oil, mostly because they were built before natural gas was widely available. Whether some of these locales will follow New York City’s lead in marshalling resources to facilitate a wholesale switchover remains to be seen and may hinge upon the success of New York City’s program. But no doubt individual property owners who can make the switch are doing it of their own accord due to the low price of natural gas versus oil.









GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at:


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Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Photos, Videos, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer and Privacy Policy.