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Tsunami debris: Mountain of a challenge for Japan

Nearly eight weeks after Japan's earthquake and tsunami, 11,000 people are still missing, and those who survived are becoming increasing frustrated at the slow pace of recovery. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Debris piled high against a marooned tuna fishing ship in Kesennuma Port, Japan.

OTSUCHI, Japan – A seemingly endless line of trucks rumble through the remains of Kamaishi Port, laden with twisted debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. They empty their load at the foot of a fast-growing mountain of debris, shaped and groomed by a fleet of diggers.

A man in a hard hat and face mask was supervising the trucks, and I asked him how long it would take to clear the rubble.

He shrugged. “It’s going to take some time,” he said. “Maybe two years; this is only the beginning.”

Nearby a salvage company was picking metal from a pile that had been separated from the main mountain. Others were draining oil from a tuna fishing ship that had been marooned inland.

Japan's Environment Ministry estimates there are 25 million tons of debris scattered along the coast, mainly from collapsed buildings. The figure doesn't include cars or boats, or radioactive debris in the evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.
They say it could take up to five years to remove and dispose of it all, though even that seems optimistic as officials can't say exactly where it will go, and the rubble is a potential environmental and health nightmare.

One of the biggest fears is of asbestos, once used widely in the construction industry here. Tiny asbestos particles when inhaled can increase the risk of lung cancer, and other lung disorders.

Ian Williams / NBC News

A machine works in the debris mountain at Kesennuma Port, Japan.

Experts fear that with warmer, drier weather, and as the debris is moved and cleared, dust will rise and the risk will grow.
One activist recently told The Associated Press: "There are people not even wearing masks. This is like a suicidal act."
The authorities say they will set up a series of new incinerators to burn debris, but there are fears about harmful emissions from burning wood saturated with sea water.

Just outside the city of Sendai, several other debris mountains were taking shape, with diggers excavating vast round holes in which to put it. But local authorities all along the coast say they are short of space in which to build either debris mountains or holes to bury it. They say they are sorting the debris as best they can, but there is simply too much of it.

In many devastated coastal communities, the authorities are facing conflicting pressures: on the one hand to quickly clean up and re-house the survivors (preferably on higher ground) and on the other to be as sensitive as positive to the possibility of finding bodies and valuable possessions.

Almost 11,000 people are still missing.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Vehicles have not been counted in the estimate of 25 million tons of debris littered along Japan's coast.

We witnessed the more sensitive approach in Otsuchi, a coastal town almost wiped out by the tsunami. The town is the sister city of Fort Bragg, Calif., a fishing town (not the bigger Fort Bragg in North Carolina). Soldiers from Japan's self defense were not only carefully checking for bodies, but also collecting photographs from the wrecks of houses – almost a quarter of a million of them so far, a quarter of a million memories as they put it.

"For them, this is everything. It is all they have got now," said one young woman supervising the photos, which are displayed for people to collect.

"We need to take care," said Ken Sasaki, a town official. "It takes time to do that."

Only after carefully checking through the debris is it piled into heaps with a red flag indicating it is good for clearing, to be taken to one of the growing mountains.

When we left Sendai, we took the newly restored bullet train back to Tokyo. The authorities are rightly proud of getting the service up and running again after making about 1,500 repairs from quake damage. They see it as another sign of the return to normality.

But for a reminder of the real challenges the region still faces, one only needs to peer across the green fields as the train picks up speed outside Sendai.

There they are: more mounds of debris fast becoming mountains.