Toxic Japanese debris piles up on Alaska's shore

Debris from Japan on Alaska's shoreline
CBS News

(CBS News) MONTAGUE ISLAND, Alaska - More than a year has passed since that devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Nearly 16,000 people were killed as entire towns were swept away. Boats, cars, and homes became islands of debris floating toward the West Coast, and some of it has started washing up on Montague Island in Alaska.

At the mouth of Prince William Sound, there are bottles and barrels, spray cans, fishing gear and worries about toxic chemicals. The Japanese writing on this fuel canister says Danger.

"We can clean this up given the resources, but it's gonna be a four-, five-, six-year process," said Chris Pallister, president of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group that tries to keep wilderness beaches free of trash.

Pallister said things like building insulation from Japan can be found along the Alaska coast, "and I mean there's boatload after boatload after boatload of that up and down the shoreline."

By 2013, it's estimated as much as 1.5 million tons of wreckage from the tsunami could reach the West Coast from Alaska all the way to California.

Montague Island is a barrier on the Alaskan coast catching much of the debris that washes across the Pacific. Light material -- plastics -- was carried here by the wind. There's more being carried on the currents.

"It's like every mile or so you run across some more pieces, and as you look off into the distance you can see pieces of stuff here and there," said fisherman Tim Cabana, who has spotted it out in the Gulf of Alaska.

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If there's any good news, it's that the debris is not expected to be contaminated with radiation from the Japanese nuclear plant disabled by the tsunami.

"The Fukushima plant had a meltdown after the debris was already in the water. And from the experts we've talked to about radiation, they think that the isotopes would be weathered and be gone because of their half lives by now," said Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA's marine debris program.

But Pallister says unrecovered Styrofoam and plastic can remain in the environment forever. If eaten it could be deadly to fish and wildlife.

"When we flew in here today and I saw the Styrofoam, especially what was down there in that fresh tide line, it just made me want to weep -- it's just really bad," Pallister said.

The impact here pales in comparison to the devastation in Japan, but what is now arriving on these shores doesn't belong in a place so remote and wild. A place of such grand natural beauty people are determined to preserve it.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.