B.C. Minister of Environment visits Haida Gwaii to see Japanese tsunami debris first hand

Minister Terry Lake recently visited Haida Gwaii on a "fact-finding" trip to see the level of the problem with Japanese tsunami debris.

North coast MLA Gary Coons took this picture of Styrofoam debris during a visit he made to Haida Gwaii back in early June.

North coast MLA Gary Coons took this picture of Styrofoam debris during a visit he made to Haida Gwaii back in early June.

British Columbian Minister of Environment Terry Lake and his team spent three days in Haida Gwaii early last weekend on a “fact-finding” trip to see first hand the debris that’s arriving on B.C.’s west coast from the 2011 tsunami that devastated parts of Japan.

The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011 was the world’s fifth-largest earthquake since 1900, with a magnitude of 9.0. After the quake, a tsunami ensued and washed approximately 5 million tonnes of debris into the sea. Around 1.5 million tonnes of debris is said to be drifting towards North America, with debris expected to arrive within the next few years. Radiation experts say that the likeliness of any of the debris generated from the tsunami holding harmful levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear emergency is very low.

Lake said his trip to Haida Gwaii was to help him understand the level of the problem at this stage and to help inform him on how many resources and how much funding will be needed to help resolve the issue.

“We want to design a program that is scaleable because even though we can see the material coming in now, there’s a lot of debate on how much volume will actually make it to our beaches. We want to have a program that allows us to scale it up if necessary and have contingency plans in place if the volume becomes greater than expected,” Lake told The Prince Rupert Northern View in an exclusive interview.

“We haven’t identified specific dollars yet, but we’re not going to be able to do this with no cost… We haven’t fully developed the plan.”

Lake and his group scoped out beaches in Haida Gwaii, and he said the most common items they came across were objects with high floatation value such as Styrofoam, plastic floats, etc. Some more unusual items they came across included mini fridges, which Lake said were lined with Styrofoam.

During his time in Haida Gwaii, Lake also met with the vice-president of the Haida Nation, local government leaders and band councilors.

“We had an open discussion… I think their biggest concern was the capacity they have for collection and disposal because their landfill space is quite limited,” said Lake, mentioning that the government might have to look at off-island solutions.

“I got the impression [Minister Terry Lake] did understand our situation, even though he didn’t have answers at that moment,” said Andrew Merilees, who is the Mayor of the Village of Masset.

“[Lake] was very aware of the issues Haida Gwaii is facing with our isolated coast-line, our small transfer station, our lack of recycling facilities on the island and of course the logistics of transport any materials off-island.”

Lake expects that there would be a plan in place by the fall to address the debris problem. Merilees said that although he would’ve liked to see a more concrete plan in place before the fall, he understands that there are unknowns to the extent of the issue.

“The majority of the materials are not expected to wash up until after the fall, so I think there is time. I don’t want to be overly critical,” he commented.

However, larger pieces of debris have also been finding their way to Haida Gwaii. In early-April, the first large piece of debris that was found floating towards British Columbia was a 50-metre Japanese fishing vessel. The boat was located about 274 kilometers off of Haida Gwaii, and was sunk by the US Coast Guard before it could reach land.

Then in mid-April, Peter Mark of Haida Gwaii discovered a large moving truck container on the beach of Graham Island, with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and other items including golf clubs inside. Although the motorcycle was very rusty it was still intact. The bike’s license plate showed that it was registered in Miyagi Prefecture on Japan’s east coast, which was the worst hit area of the country in the tsunami. The motorcycle was tracked back to its owner, who is a 29-year old man who lost his home and three family members in the tsunami.

Lake has reiterated that the Japanese debris issue is going to need all levels of government working together to have it be properly dealt with, and there have been many critics who have urged the government to act more quickly to address the issue.

Although an official plan and funding amount are still yet to be determined, the region and province have been making attempts to manage the debris.

On a local level, many groups have taken it upon themselves to help clean up debris coming in from the ocean, however Merilees says that although he’s pleased people are concerned, there is one major issue with that.

“People have been piling it up by the Parks building, or just dumping it in the landfill. That’s fine when we only have a small amount but if we ever did get the mass of debris show up on the beach it would overwhelm us,” he said.

In late May, the Skeena-Queen Charlotte Regional District sent a letter to Premier Christy Clark asking for the government to hire off-season fishermen to clean up debris while it’s still in the water, however Merilees does not think that’s a realistic option because the ocean is “even more vast than the beaches are”.

Provincially, the Tsunami Debris Coordinating Committee (or TDC) was formed to bring together the various levels of government and key interest groups in an effort to manage the debris arriving on B.C.’s coast. The TDC is co-chaired by provincial representative Jim Standen, the assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Environment and federal representative Paul Kluckner from Environment Canada.