- Associated Press - Thursday, June 28, 2012

SALEM, ORE. (AP) - Find a boxcar-sized dock on the beach, or a soccer ball with Japanese symbols? The state of Oregon wants to hear from you. Just dial 211.

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber announced the hotline at a news conference Thursday, saying it’s an easy way for residents and visitors to report Japanese tsunami debris. Beginning Friday, the hotline will be staffed during business hours and will take recorded messages at other times.

“I just want to make sure that Oregonians understand that we are on top of this,” Kitzhaber said.

The hotline will allow the public to help keep Oregon’s beaches clean and return any missing Japanese property to its rightful owners, the governor said.

He also said Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell, deputy director of the Oregon National Guard and interim director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management, will be responsible for coordinating the response and cleanup efforts among state agencies.

It’s important to quickly collect and throw away tsunami debris to keep beaches clean and prevent the introduction of invasive species, Caldwell said. Officials are asking that people not take home debris to keep as souvenirs, but they say there’s little chance of the debris being harmful to human health.

People should be especially mindful of items that might have sentimental value or personal significance to someone in Japan, officials said. When such items wash up, Oregon will work with the Japanese consulate to return them.

Helping with tsunami debris is a new responsibility for the 211 hotline, which was created in 2004 to help people in the Portland area get connected with health and community services. It’s since expanded to cover 80 percent of Oregon’s population, according to the website of the nonprofit organization that operates it.

Oregon will work with California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii to request money from the federal government to help with their efforts. If the debris had washed up all at once, it would unquestionably qualify for federal disaster funds, Kitzhaber said. But since it’s emerging in pieces, the states will have to work harder, he said.

The Japanese government has estimated 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the March 2011 tsunami. Some U.S. experts think the bulk of that trash will never reach shore, but others fear a massive, slowly unfolding environmental disaster.

Debris that already has arrived on the shores of North America includes oyster farm buoys, soccer balls, boats and a shipping container holding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with Japanese license plates. Earlier this month, a 66-foot dock ripped loose by the big waves landed on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore.

Biologists and volunteers scraped 1.5 tons of marine life from the dock, and Oregon officials say it will cost about $85,000 to remove the structure.

Debris floating in the water is a serious threat to fishermen and other mariners, said Terry Thompson, a Lincoln County Commissioner and commercial fisherman.

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