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
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.
credit: Wolfram Burner, courtesy Flickr
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Marine Science Center; NOAA;
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Clean Heat; EDF.
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