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Bonamici Makes the Case for Tsunami Debris Cleanup Bills to Key House Panel - Hearing Signals Likelihood Legislation Will Move Forward This Year

June 13, 2013
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) today testified to a key U.S. House panel about the importance of passing two bills she introduced earlier this year to assist coastal communities with tsunami debris cleanup efforts. The hearing before the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs signals that the legislation is likely to move forward this year. Bonamici has broad bipartisan support for the bills, which are both cosponsored by senior Republican and Democratic members of the committee. 

“Marine debris has long been an issue facing these communities, but since a devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan more than 2 years ago, the volume and nature of debris has increased dramatically, and our constituents need our help,” said Bonamici in her testimony to the Subcommittee. “For state and local governments, most of which have been facing difficult budget decisions for years now, the cost of responding to this influx of debris presents additional hardship. The legislation before you today would start to address some of the concerns that have been brought to me by my constituents,” Bonamici testified.

The Tsunami Debris Cleanup Reimbursement Act, H.R. 1491, would allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to refund Oregon, other states, and local governments for tsunami debris cleanup expenses using $5 million in funding donated by the government of Japan. The Marine Debris Emergency Act, H.R. 1425, would expedite the current grant award process made through NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and give preference to communities facing severe marine debris events.

Communities in the Pacific Ocean and on the West Coast of the United States began to experience a significant increase in marine debris arriving on their beaches and coastline following the tragic Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated the nation of Japan in March 2011. The first high-profile piece of debris was an abandoned fishing vessel that the U.S. Coast Guard sank off the coast of Alaska. Later, a 66-foot dock covered in potentially invasive marine species landed on an Oregon beach. Similar items have continued to arrive in recent months, and some oceanographers predict that the volume will increase.

A video of Bonamici’s testimony can be found  at https://youtu.be/pAq7uJucjP8. The full text of the testimony to the committee follows.

Thank you Chairman Fleming, and Delegate Bordallo, and all the members of the subcommittee, for allowing me to testify in support of H.R. 1425 and H.R. 1491, bipartisan legislation that I introduced to address concerns that have been raised not just by my constituents in Oregon, but by residents of the Pacific Coast and Pacific Islands.  Marine debris has long been an issue facing these communities, but since a devastating earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan more than 2 years ago, the volume and nature of debris has increased dramatically, and our constituents need our help.

Many of us first learned of the tsunami debris issue when the U.S. Coast Guard was forced to sink an abandoned fishing vessel off the coast of Alaska. The vessel had floated across the ocean after the tsunami dislodged it from a Japanese harbor.  Although that large-scale debris was disposed of harmlessly and never reached our shores, last June a 66-foot dock washed up on Agate Beach in Oregon.

Marine debris like this poses a threat to safety, the environment, and the economy.  This massive dock, constructed primarily of concrete and steel, arrived on the beach with little notice, raising concerns about the danger such debris would pose to the fishermen and other mariners who earn their livelihood off the coast.  Likewise, invasive species attached to the dock required the response of local scientists to ensure proper mitigation. And the coastal economy, largely driven by tourism, requires beaches free of unsightly and dangerous debris.

For state and local governments, most of which have been facing difficult budget decisions for years now, the cost of responding to this influx of debris presents additional hardship. In this case, Oregon paid more than $80,000 to have the dock removed.

The legislation before you today would start to address some of the concerns that have been brought to me by my constituents.  H.R. 1425, the Marine Debris Emergency Act, would call for an expedited grant process through NOAA to respond to “severe marine debris events,” a definition that encompasses both the tsunami that struck Japan along with debris generated by Hurricane Sandy. 

NOAA already has a marine debris grant program, but awarding funds for cleanup now can take more than a year. In addition to requiring that grants for severe marine debris events be issued in 60 days, this bill would give preference to those applicants facing a severe debris event.  This bill has the bipartisan support of legislators from Alaska to Hawaii, and up and down the West Coast. 

H.R. 1491 is an even simpler and more straightforward piece of legislation.  In an act of unmatched generosity, the Japanese government last December provided our country with $5 million to assist with debris cleanup.  NOAA has made some of these funds available to states, for which my colleagues and I are incredibly grateful.  But NOAA’s statutory granting authority prevents any of the remaining funds in this account from being used to reimburse states and local governments for expenses incurred to clean up or remove debris prior to December 2012.  H.R. 1491 would simply allow but not require NOAA to reimburse states and local governments for funds that were spent on cleanup from March 2011 through December 2012.  This would go a long way toward assisting struggling coastal economies, and has elicited bipartisan support from Pacific Coast representatives.  In addition, NOAA has expressed regret that it is unable to reimburse state and local governments, and NOAA representatives have worked with my staff in drafting this legislation.

Thank you for your interest in this issue, and in the legislation I’ve worked on with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address some local concerns with debris removal.  I look forward to any questions you might have.

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