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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rising red tide: Russia accused of trashing Bering Strait amid Arctic power struggle

There is a litterbug at the top of the world, and evidence points to America’s longtime nemesis: Russia.

Tribal leaders and federal agencies have reported a major rise this summer in the amount of plastics and other garbage washing ashore in the Bering Strait region of Alaska, much of it bearing Russian-language labels. The cans, bottles, bags and other debris scattered across the otherwise pristine Alaskan coast have frustrated local officials, who are pleading with the federal government to take more aggressive action.

The problem has become a priority for the eight-nation Arctic Council, of which Russia is a member.

Researchers say the pollution will likely get worse over the coming decade as the world’s most powerful nations vie for dominance of a warmer Arctic region. The U.S., Russia, China and other world powers increasingly see the Arctic as key strategic territory in the 21st century, and each nation is investing vast sums of money to modernize their navies and build ships capable of operating in the icy waters.

Russia and China also see the Arctic corridor as prime real estate for commercial shipping and fertile ground to extract energy resources.

But the renewed global focus on the region will likely bring with it a massive increase in commercial and military maritime traffic, which in turn could lead to more trash being dumped overboard and ultimately finding its way onto Alaskan beaches. In addition to being an eyesore, the refuse carries potentially catastrophic consequences for animal life.

The exact origin of this summer’s garbage tsunami remains unclear, but leaders on the ground say it’s unlike anything they have seen before.

“It’s still happening. It began the end of July and it’s still occurring. … There is trash everywhere,” said Austin Ahmasuk, marine advocate with Kawerak Inc., a tribal consortium based in Nome, Alaska.

Marine debris, he said, is a common problem in the area, and his organization routinely assembles teams to pick up as much of it as possible.

But unlike past years, the garbage coming ashore this summer appears to be new, suggesting that a huge amount of trash had been dumped at the same time in the same general vicinity — what officials call a “point source” event.

“This stuff has serial numbers on it, date stamps of July 2020,” Mr. Ahmasuk told The Washington Times in an interview this week. “We were collecting stuff that was on the beach for decades. Now the stuff we’re seeing washing up, the foreign debris especially, it’s of recent origin.”

Russian origin

Mr. Ahmasuk said aerosol and oil cans are among the common finds. Federal officials also say there have been personal hygiene products, deck boots and an assortment of other items. Many of the products have Russian writing on the labels, though packaging suggests others may have originated in South Korea or other Asian nations, Mr. Ahmasuk said.

Last month, the Russian military held major naval drills in the Bering Sea, billed as one of Moscow’s largest maritime exercises since the Cold War. The trash began arriving on Alaskan beaches before those drills, meaning they couldn’t have been the initial cause.

But the continued influx of garbage well into September raises questions about whether Russian military vessels may be contributing to the problem.

“We can’t rule out the possibility, but there aren’t any indicators that point to the Russian military being the source,” said Peter Murphy, Alaska regional coordinator for the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mr. Murphy echoed the sentiments of local officials by saying he is especially troubled by what he has seen this summer.

“This is a lot more in a single concentrated point of time,” he said in an interview. “Mixed in … were food items, vegetables, which caught our attention. It does indicate that something went into the water very quickly because otherwise that would have decomposed very rapidly.”

Mr. Murphy said NOAA, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies have formed a working group to model how old the debris appears to be and, based on wind patterns and weather conditions, where it likely entered the water. Officials then can try to determine which ships may have been in that general area at the time and their country of origin.

Despite those efforts, lawmakers say there is still much work to be done.

“Whether it comes from Russia, China, or any other country, marine debris washing ashore in Alaska is all too common,” Zack Brown, a spokesperson for Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, told The Times in a statement. “Marine debris harms coastal economies, irreparably damages marine life, encourages the presence of invasive species, and causes unnecessary risk for those who earn a living on the water. Congressman Young is acutely aware of these dangers, and will continue fighting to prevent situations like the one recently reported in the Bering Strait.”

Mr. Young, who is in a tight reelection fight this fall, was instrumental in the passage of the Save Our Seas Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2018. The legislation set aside money for the cleanup of marine debris, though local officials such as Mr. Ahmasuk say it didn’t go nearly far enough and that local communities still lack the necessary support.

“We are dealing with this on our own,” he said.

Meanwhile, an Arctic Council working group, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, is developing a regional action plan to address marine litter. The Arctic Council comprises the U.S., Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Russia.


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