A major shoreline cleanup project that took a year to accomplish is underway in Alaska, including on Kodiak Island, involving helicopters and boats and workers removing hundreds of tons of marine debris that officials believe were mostly spawned by the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Debris sent to the sea by the tsunami and deposited along the coastline of the United States and Canada will be airlifted from rocky beaches and remote shorelines and shipped out from sites such as Kayak and Montague islands in Prince William Sound. A barge is stopping in Kodiak by Wednesday before going to other coastal areas to pick up previously collected debris to be sorted for recycling in Seattle.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation — along with other government agencies, nonprofit organizations and commercial partners — launched a month-long helicopter and barge operation to remove the marine debris.

Funded in large part by a goodwill gift from the government of Japan, Alaska has contracted with Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a nonprofit organization, to coordinate the project.

Officials say it was unheard of in Alaska: The operation will use helicopters to sling several thousand super sacks and bundles of marine debris from dozens of remote sites onto a 300-foot barge, the Dioskouroi.

The barge will be towed by the tug M/V Billie H from Kodiak through the Gulf of Alaska and then south to British Columbia, picking up debris caches along the way.

The debris will be offloaded in Seattle for sorting and recycling, with remaining debris sent by train to a final disposal site in Oregon. The barge is scheduled to arrive in Kodiak on Wednesday, July 15.

The project was spurred, in part, by the mass of material that’s washed ashore after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. The quake claimed at least 16,000 lives and the tidal waves swept an estimated 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean.

While 70 percent of the debris sank off the coast of Japan, as much as 1.5 million tons of debris are moving across the Pacific Ocean with the winds and the currents, officials said.

Tsunami-generated debris began arriving on the coasts of the United States and Canada in late 2011 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects debris to continue to arrive for several years, although there are no reliable estimates as to how much tsunami debris will ultimately reach Alaska.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 temblor hit 230 miles northeast of Tokyo, resulting in a massive 30-foot tsunami that destroyed coastal communities.

Project officials say it can be hard to distinguish tsunami debris from the run-of-the-mill rubbish that has long fouled rugged shorelines unless there are identifiable markings.

But Chris Pallister, president of the cleanup organization Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which is coordinating the effort, and others say the type and volume of debris that has washed up in Alaska is usually different before Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Before the tsunami, a lot of old fishing gear would be on the beach. But afterward, the debris included an inundation of Styrofoam and urethane, Pallister said. Objects such as property stakes and crates used by fishermen in coastal Japan also have begun showing up, he said.

Among the debris collected in Kodiak and in other parts of Alaska are coils of fishing lines, plastics, fuel tanks and plastic containers, fishing buoys, building fragments, polystyrene foam, household items and plastics.

Since the tsunami, significant increases of debris of suspected Japanese origin have been noted on Kodiak coastlines, officials said.

Pallister estimates the cost of the barge project at up to $1.3 million, with the state contributing $900,000 from its share of the $5 million that Japan provided for parts of the U.S. affected by tsunami debris.

Crews in British Columbia will be able to add debris to the barge as it passes through, chipping in if they do. Pallister’s group has committed $100,000.

Delays due to weather could drive up costs, which Pallister said is a concern. The cost to operate the barge is $17,000 a day, officials said.

Dump trucks are expected to ferry the large white bags of debris from the Kodiak storage yard to the barge after it arrives. Tom Pogson with the Island Trails Network, which worked on the Kodiak-area debris removal, said that will be the easy part.

In other locations, the bags will be airlifted by helicopter to the barge, which Pallister expects will be “pretty maxxed out” when the barge, roughly the size of a football field, is fully loaded.

Despite these unparalleled losses, Japan generously donated $5 million to the United States to support cleanup efforts in the five Pacific states, and $1 million to British Columbia.

NOAA administers the funds in the United States and makes awards based on the specific needs of each state.

Due to the large volume of debris, the thousands of miles of impacted coastline, and the complexity of industrial-scale response and removal operations, Alaska has so far received $2.5 million of the $5 million gift.

KODIAK KICKOFF EVENT

An open house and a press availability is scheduled at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Koniag Inc. meeting facility at 194 Alimaq Drive in Kodiak.

Speakers including DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig and representatives from the marine debris community in Alaska will talk about the effects of marine debris and provide additional information about what is being done to address the issue in Alaska.

Representative samples of marine debris, photos of past cleanup efforts, a map of the planned barge route and debris locations, and a filled super sack will illustrate details of the operation and the scope of debris that continues to impact Alaska’s coastline.

Kodiak residents are invited to attend.

— Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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