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Tsunami Debris Is Expected to Hit San Diego County Beaches This Summer

Editor's Note: San Diego County released the following announcement on April 8, 2013.

San Diego County's hazardous materials division is working with local lifeguards, firefighters, 911 dispatchers and others to make sure they know how to respond if any suspicious debris starts washing up on local beaches later this summer.

Just over two years ago, a stunned world watched a massive earthquake and 35-foot-tall tsunami tidal waves devastate the eastern coast of Japan.

The tsunami waves washed 1.5 million tons of wrecked cars, buildings, homes and everything in them into the ocean. They also flooded Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which melted its cores and spilled out radiation.

Late this summer, whatever is left of that debris is expected to finally reach our shores along the West Coast.

Nick Vent, the supervising environmental health specialist who manages the County's hazmat team, said the agencies that have been monitoring the debris' progress--from the state and national environmental protection agencies, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and San Diego County's Office of Emergency Services -- do not think the public should be alarmed.

They do not think we'll be inundated with tsunami debris. And they think it's very unlikely that any tsunami debris will carry any dangerous levels of radiation because it was swept out to sea before the power plant melted down and has been in the ocean for two years.

"You've got to realize the debris was probably two days out to sea before the reactor (melted down)," Vent said. "And if you actually look at the (radiation) plume models and where the radiation drifted, it actually went into the island of Japan. It didn't go out into the ocean."

But Vent said to make sure all emergency responders know what to do if any suspicious debris lands, he's been holding workshops with to all of the groups that may be the first to come across debris--to review what steps to take, brush up on how to use the radiation monitoring equipment if they have it, or even to borrow County equipment if they need it.

"Basically, we're doing a lot of awareness classes," Vent said. "I've met with all of the lifeguard groups from Mexico to the (Orange County) border and I've met with all of the fire departments in that coastal line. We don't know if anything will show up, but we want them to be aware, and we are getting everybody ready."

Strange debris washes up on San Diego County beaches all the time, whether it's something small that's fallen off a pleasure boat or a 55-gallon drum of diesel fuel that's fallen off a fishing vessel. Because of that, Vent said it may be difficult to tell whether any debris that's found this summer is actually from the tsunami plume -- unless if it carries Japanese writing or arrives in large clumps of material.

Vent said the 1.5 million ton plume that washed away from Japan in 2011 was actually so large initially that it was able to be tracked by satellite. Vent, however, said that's no longer the case because some of it has sunk, or scattered.

Vent said the general rules for emergency responders who are called to the scene of potential tsunami debris are:

  • Conduct an "upwind" walk-around to evaluate the scene and debris.
  • Refrain from handling any debris that appears to be hazardous unless wearing proper protective equipment.
  • Test air quality to make sure debris isn't emitting dangerous chemicals, flammable vapors or radiation.
  • Call in the County's Hazardous Incident Response Team (HIRT) if the measured radiation levels are twice the ambient background levels or high enough to reach "action levels." And contact radiation health experts to help.
  • Report any debris that can be identified as from Japan's tsunami to NOAA.

Vent said if the public thinks it has found tsunami debris they should call 911 or talk to the lifeguards at the beach.

Some tsunami debris has already washed up in other areas. A soccer ball was found in Alaska, a container with a motorcycle inside was found in Canada and a 66-foot-long steel and concrete dock washed up on a beach in Oregon.

Whatever happens here, Vent said emergency teams in the County will be ready to handle themselves.

"In San Diego County we focus on making sure there are no surprises," he said. "We want everybody to understand what they're looking at and what's coming. Hopefully, it will be nothing and we'll go from there."

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