Slideshow: Flotsam from Japanese tsunami hitting Alaska

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From Casey Wian | CNN

YAKUTAT, Alaska (CNN) — Residents of towns in the Alaska Panhandle have begun picking up plastic bottles, chunks of foam insulation and floating buoys from Japan’s 2011 tsunami now turning up across the Pacific Ocean.

“This is urethane spray building foam,” Chris Pallister, president of the conservation group Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said as he picked through trash on Montague Island, about 200 miles north of Juneau. “We just never got much of that before. But if you walk up and down this beach, you see big chunks.”

The foam comes from the walls of buildings that were smashed to splinters by the wall of water that slammed into Japan’s northeastern coast after the March 2011 earthquake that left nearly 16,000 known dead. The wreckage was swept out to sea when the wave receded and has drifted 4,000 miles across the northern Pacific in the 14 months since then.

Volunteers like Pallister have been trekking out to remote areas like Montague Island to help clean up the beaches. But they’re worried they’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of wreckage — estimated at 1.5 million tons — believed to be headed toward North American shores.

Japanese officials estimate up to 70% of the tsunami wreckage has sunk. But the rest, ranging in size from children’s toys to a squid trawler sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard off Alaska in April, has been turning up off the United States and Canada for more than a month.

It’s the little pieces of Styrofoam that worry conservationists like Pallister, who says there may be billions of them out there.

“Albatross and sea birds eat this stuff like crazy, and it’s killing the hell out of them,” he said. Alaskans have been asking for help from the federal government. But the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said last week it doesn’t have the budget to clean up remote areas. NOAA’s marine debris program is facing a 25% cut under the budget the Obama administration has submitted to Congress — so the cleanup may become the problem of cash-strapped states, already struggling to make ends meet.

At a Senate hearing last week, the head of NOAA’s Ocean Service, David Kennedy, said the bulk of the debris wasn’t expected to hit until 2013. But he said it was “incredibly expensive” to clean up.

“You got to have ships to get out there,” Kennedy said. “You got have people, then you got to have some place to do away with it … We can’t begin to touch, especially in remote areas, if there is substantial new amounts of debris, what’s going to be required to remove it.”

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, the chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that held the hearing, said NOAA’s position was “somewhat frustrating.”

“The role of the federal government in emergencies is to assist states, not just say, ‘It’s your responsibility, good luck,’ because that’s not acceptable,” Begich, a Democrat, told Kennedy.

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