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Trash piles up in a Columbia "mega sink"

Jul 10, 2013


By The Associated Press

WARRENTON — “When you start picking this stuff up, the volume is amazing,” said Marc Ward, picking through a tidal inlet on the north end of Fort Stevens State Park he's termed a “Columbia River South Jetty Mega Sink.”

The inlet, he and others found, plays host to anything as large as tires down to granules of microplastic hidden on and under driftwood and the rolling dunes north of the South Jetty.

Ward, who along with 57 other volunteers took out about 600 pounds of debris from the site June 22, is organizing a second cleanup for July 28 he hopes will clear up most of the remaining visible marine debris.

The cleanup starts at 9 a.m. July 28 in Parking Lot C of Fort Stevens. Volunteers need only bring bags and gloves to wear.

Ward, who runs the nonprofit Sea Turtles Forever with his wife Rachel, was originally tipped off to the mega sink by North Coast Land Conservancy founder Neal Maine. Also an avid wildlife photographer, Maine noticed it while taking pictures of snowy owls on the spit.

In a one-square meter sample, Ward extracted more than 5 1?2 pounds of debris, including anything from bottle caps, bottle rockets and PVC piping pieces to straws, syringes and cigar tips. He still spots copious amounts of nylon rope and other fishing gear, nickel-sized plastic fragments and sand grain-sized microplastic debris weathered from years of floating in the ocean.

Ward suspects another debris-laden inlet to the west of the one he and others cleaned in June, although not in as grave a condition.

The material in the sink, he said, comes almost entirely from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which slowly spins in the North Pacific Gyre, a slow-moving, clockwise, circular ocean current that shoots straight at Oregon before turning south, periodically dumping its beaches with debris. Much of the 2011 Japanese tsunami debris, he added, is being caught in the gyre, and Oregon's at the perfect spot to get dumped on by it.

With the growing heat, much of the plastic debris threatens to leach Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other harmful chemicals into a wetland site frequented by killdeer, snowy owls, pelicans, small mammals, reptiles and clams. He said the animals often mistake the microplastics for food, eating them and tearing up their digestive tracts.

With less than three weeks to organize, Ward gathered 17 people for the June cleanup. He said Park Ranger Dane Osis found a group of about 40 Mormons camping in Fort Stevens and brought them to the cleanup at the last minute.

“That was 80 more hands for us,” he said. “We were singing hallelujah when they came up.”

Ward's real bane is a lack of funding directed toward marine debris cleanup.

“People can't volunteer endlessly,” said Ward, adding he's done so the last decade of his life in the marine debris effort.

He said that while fishing gear cleanup gets assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the agency doesn't help with microplastics. The state, although supportive in the cleanups, doesn't have any money for dedicated cleaners.

Laurel Hillman, coastal resource planner for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission, has greatly supported his efforts, as have park rangers such as Osis. Yet Ward's been told the state simply doesn't have the funding to focus people specifically on cleaning up the debris.

“If we're just standing by, our beaches are going to be covered with that stuff,” said Ward. “I really hate that thought, our beaches just becoming a sink for that stuff. That's my nightmare.”

The real solution to the debris problem beyond cleaning beaches, said Ward, is to stop them at the source.

He said it is important to get people to recycle bottlecaps with their bottles; stop illegal fireworks being shot off near water; do away with plastic straws and opt for paper variants; and make industries responsible for their waste, such as the small PVC?pipes he attributes to local oyster farmers.

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