VANCOUVER - British Columbia could see an increase in debris washing ashore from the Japanese tsunami as winter storms begin to batter the coast, and the province's environment minister says there will be a plan in place by the end of October to deal with collection and disposal.
But there remains great uncertainty about how much and where the disaster refuse might wash ashore, Terry Lake said Tuesday.
"Right now, the volume is relatively low, but we do expect that will increase," Lake told reporters in Victoria.
Officials believe there is about one and a half million tonnes of debris floating toward North America from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"We do only expect a very small percentage of that to wash up on British Columbia beaches and while we have seen some wind-blown tsunami debris arrive on our coastlines already, there certainly is potential for an increase in that material this winter," Lake said.
"Of course, we want to be prepared."
Differentiating between debris related to the tsunami and regular debris is difficult or even impossible in some cases, he said.
B.C. has signed an agreement with Washington state, Oregon and California to collaborate on debris management.
The first phase of a management plan was completed this summer, outlining protocols and risk assessment. Despite concerns of toxicity from the nuclear crisis that followed the earthquake in Japan, none of the debris tested so far has been toxic, officials said.
The second phase of the plan to be complete by the end of next month will outline collection and disposal of debris.
Robin Brown of Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the ocean acts like a conveyor belt for the refuse, some of which ends up part of a great North Pacific garbage patch that swirls in the middle of the ocean.
Monitoring by satellite of the rest has proven difficult, he said.
"This has not been successful to date. The debris is too dispersed to be seen from satellite," he said, although it concentrates more as it gets closer to the shoreline.
Aside from a few high-profile items — including a Harley Davidson motorcycle that showed up on a B.C. beach in April and a ghost ship that surfaced off the Alaska coast — the bulk of the debris remains in the middle of the ocean.
Lake said the provincial and federal governments have put about $100,000 so far into tsunami debris management and planning. Because it's not known what level of response will be needed, it's difficult to say how much it will cost.
"It's something that has been offered and has not officially been put in place," Lake said. "Those discussions with Canada and Japan are ongoing and we look forward to seeing the results of those."