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Town's dilemma: Mountains of tsunami debris, no place to put it

 

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Before officials in Minamisanriku, Japan, can begin rebuilding from the March 11 tsunami, they must first dispose of what remains of their coastal town: an estimated 650,000 to 700,000 tons of wreckage that they have nowhere to put.

It’s a monumental challenge, and one being faced by communities along hundreds of miles of Japan’s battered northeastern coast.

The debris covers an estimated 10 square kilometers (a little less than 4 square miles, or three times the size of New York’s Central Park) of the fishing town, one of Japan’s hardest hit communities. It comes in all shapes and sizes: cars, refrigerators, wood, steel, air conditioners, concrete rubble, clothes, broken glass and countless other forms.

Sit in an excavator while it works and see the teams who are removing debris by hand in the tsunami-ravaged town of Minamsanriku, Japan. Takahashi Abe of Abei Construction explains the process and challenges. (Jim Seida/msnbc.com)

Town officials, who estimate it will cost about $27.4 million to remove it, have plans to burn as much of the debris as possible and recycle what they can.

But since Japan has little landfill space left, the rest may eventually be shipped overseas. The New York Times reported on June 3 that the government of Miyagi prefecture, which includes Minamisanriku, also plans to use land adjacent to Matsushima, a group of islands considered one of “the three most beautiful places” in Japan, as a dump.


 

Officials are planning to build five incinerators in Miyagi prefecture, in which Minamisanriku is located. But the one that the town will use in Motoyoshi, in nearby Kesennuma city, won't be operational until the summer or fall of 2012. That puts the companies in charge of the cleanup in a quandary.

"The debris storage space will be used up soon. Unless we secure other space to dump the debris, we may have to stop the cleanup," said Takashi Abe of Abei Construction, one of the 20 companies hired to collect the rubble from Minamisanriku. "That's the biggest issue we're facing right now."

The cleanup began in late March, but initially the pace was slow, as the crews also were searching for bodies in the town, where 900 people died or vanished.

Kyle Drubek / for msnbc.com

This map of Minimasanriku shows the tsunami-affected areas in red, was colored by hand and is posted on a large information board in the city's disaster response office.

"While we were cleaning up the debris, we were also looking for those (missing) people, so we had to do it delicately," said Akira Saijo, head of the town office's construction division, which is overseeing the debris removal. "The pace of cleaning it up was slow until the end of May."

Abe, whose company is cleaning one of three sectors of the town, said all of the cleanup crews alone are employing about 100 excavators and up to 70 trucks, said Abe. Enough debris to fill 500 large trucks is cleared daily, he said, but in some areas removal has just begun.

The garbage is divided into "burnable and nonburnable," with the latter being split into various types, such as plastic, iron and vinyl, Abe said. Materials like steel and concrete will be recycled. Other companies are handling the disposal of vehicles.

As slow as it is proceeding, the cleanup has one immediate benefit: It is one of the only sources of employment in the economically idled town. Workers – many of them survivors of the tsunami – can be seen each day combing through the debris fields, filling plastic bags with burnable material and picking up items that could be dangerous, like big shards of jagged glass and metal. Fishermen, who are jobless due to the destruction of the fish market, are also being hired to collect wreckage that is floating at sea.

The human hands are key in many ways to rehabilitating the land, said Abe, who employs 80 such part-time workers out of a total crew of 300.

"By giving them this work, we give them hope and income so that we can build our town together," he said.

Abe said the company also had “special handlers” on hand to deal with any hazardous materials, such as needles and medicines from a demolished hospital, or fertilizer from rice paddies.

Debris ready for permanent disposal – including piles of tires, wood, metal and hand-filled plastic bags -- is stacked up along roads, waiting for trucks to haul it away.

Saijo, the Minamisanriku official in overseeing the cleanup, said the interim step “is a waste of time and a waste of money." But without the incinerators, he said, there is no other choice.

Abe noted that having these new piles around town creates another cause for concern: hygiene.

"As the rainy season hits Japan and the summer comes, we'll have issues like odor, flies and mosquitos. We already have those issues now. But how we can prevent those issues from spreading will be our biggest challenge," Abe said.

Saijo and Abe believe about 50 percent of the material will eventually be burned.

"By burning (it) into ash, you can reduce the content to one-tenth," Abe said, noting he thought the ash would likely then be buried.

It’s not known how much of the debris can be recycled, as saltwater complicates the process and spending a lot of time sorting recyclables could hold up the cleanup, Abe said.

What is clear is that the task will take considerable time. Saijo said only 10 percent of the debris has been removed so far and predicts the work won’t be done until the end of March 2012 -- depending on when the incinerators are operational.

"I am hoping after three years, five years at the latest, this area will be reborn completely," Abe said.

Kyle Drubek / for msnbc.com

When asked the hardest part of her new job, Yukari Sato replied "My back hurts." Although it is a daunting task, cleaning up the town for the future is important to her.

But Abe took a more optimistic view, saying that between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of debris – roughly 30 to 45 percent of the total -- had been removed so far.

For many residents, the mountains of wreckage can’t be removed soon enough.

“I want it cleaned up as fast as possible," said Yukari Sato, a 45-year-old mother of three whose floral shop and home were wiped out and is now working in the debris fields. "Until we have it cleaned up, we can’t start anything."