U.S. not ready for Japan tsunami debris

Debris from Japanese tsunami floating in Pacific Ocean
Debris from Japanese tsunami floating in Pacific Ocean
U.S. Navy

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - The tsunami that hit Japan last year sent about five million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Much of it sank, but much of it -- some 1.5 million tons -- is floating toward the U.S.

Congress is coming to the realization that America is not yet prepared for a massive cleanup.

From a Harley Davidson motorcycle to barrels of chemicals, the debris is already washing ashore on the West Coast.

In March, the U.S. Coast Guard had to sink a 160-foot fishing vessel that had floated all the way from Japan.

"Many people said we wouldn't see any of this impact until 2013 or 2014," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D, Wash.) said at a hearing Thursday.

Japan tsunami debris: Toxicity main U.S. concern

"What we're hearing is, 'It's here. How do we deal with it?"' observed Sen. Mark Begich (D, Alaska).

At the session, senators from western states grilled a top U.S. environmental official. They wanted to know how his agency is planning to deal with the field of trash - roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States - that's headed to the U.S. more quickly than expected.

"We do not have the funds to mount a cleanup, especially in areas as remote as Alaska," David Kennedy, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the panel.

Kennedy said it's not clear whether all 1.5 million tons of debris will make it across the Pacific.

"How much of that is still going to be floating and available to come ashore? We don't have a clue," he admitted.

Another thing no one seems to know is how the debris field will affect marine life. Fishing is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Pacific Northwest.

"What you're most worried about is that it's going to affect your economy," Cantwell observed.

She wants to know who's going to coordinate the cleanup of potentially hazardous trash. "We want a plan to see exactly how they're going to deal with it," Cantwell said.

It won't be cheap. The cost to remove one small sailboat that washed up on a Pacific atoll was $1.2 million.

To see the Nancy Cordes report, click on the video in the player above.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' chief White House correspondent.