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Who foots the bill for cleaning up Japan's tsunami debris?

A 20-foot boat came ashore Friday in Washington state covered in massive barnacles. When invasive, non-native species are suddenly introduced into an eco-system, they can cause an environmental disaster. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

The Japanese tsunami debris washing ashore on West Coast beaches is so far a novelty that has locals talking and tourists visiting, but those sporadic beachings will become more frequent -- and more costly to clean up.

In addition to removing the debris, and in some cases trying to reunite it with owners in Japan, crews must also deal with the threat of invasive marine species that could threaten local ecosystems if they grab a foothold.

Oregon's Department of Parks and Recreation learned first hand about the costs when a 66-foot-long dock landed on a beach near Newport last month.


Oregon Parks and Recreation Department

A volunteer on June 7 burns marine organisms off a Japanese dock that came ashore near Newport, Ore.

Volunteers helped burn non-native seaweed and other organisms clinging to the dock, and the department put in $4,300 for machinery. The state on Tuesday also accepted a bid of $84,000 to have the structure removed from the beach. Other bids ranged as high as $240,000.

"As far as who pays, there is no single budget set aside for it at this point," parks spokesman Chris Havel told msnbc.com. "We are working with the governor's office and federal legislators to try and shield coastal communities from the direct cost as much as we can, but there are no concrete answers yet."

As for the months ahead, "no one knows how much it could cost, or who will pay," Havel said. For now, the department has to "pay for it up front" with funds budgeted for other items.

At the federal level, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awards grants for cleanup of marine debris, but that program was created before the 2011 tsunami and is meant to deal with smaller messes.

When a large dock that broke away from a Japanese harbor after the tsunami and washed up on an Oregon beach, it brought along millions of organisms. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Grants have totaled up to $1 million a year recently, NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen told msnbc.com, but the program isn't accepting new proposals until the fall. 

Even worse for Oregon, "the program does not award grants for past work done before the award," Allen said.

In Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday said the state has some funds set aside for tsunami debris cleanup, but it's likely not enough. "We don't have the resources at the state level to do what we're going to have to do here," she said.

Northwest Public Radio said a state ecology spokesman suggested Washington might even send Japan the bill for cleanups. "That's something that needs to be sorted through," Curt Hart said.

But the state department later said that comment was misconstrued, and that it referred to the broader issue of how to pay for cleaning up the debris. State officials have never considered asking the Japanese government for funds, the department told msnbc.com.

NOAA's Allen said the agency is working with communities to "reduce any possible impacts to our natural resources and coastal communities," but she stopped short of saying federal funds were available.

A basketball that washed away during last year's tsunami in Japan was returned to its rightful place Wednesday. NBC's Michelle Franzen reports.

"This is an ongoing issue," she said, urging communities to keep an eye on NOAA's marine debris website

 

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