The March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused a big loss of lives and property. It also left a large amount of debris, creating a headache for local governments in the devastated region. An estimated 24.9 million tons of debris exist in the three most affected prefectures — 16 million tons in Miyagi, 6 million tons in Iwate and 2.9 million tons in Fukushima.

The amount in Miyagi Prefecture alone is estimated to be more than the 14 million tons of debris left by the 1995 Kobe earthquake; disposal of that debris took three years.

In addition, the tsunami washed away many cars and caused many boats to run aground. Roads and bridges were damaged. This debris hampers reconstruction efforts. Disposal is so slow that securing land for construction of fabricated houses and storing reconstruction materials is expected to be difficult.

Under government guidelines, destroyed houses can be removed without the owners’ consent. Abandoned cars and ships are moved to storage sites and may be disposed of unless the owners indicate they want them back. However, it is extremely difficult to contact the owners. It isn’t known which of the owners have died, and some owners may be staying in temporary evacuation shelters.

In Sendai alone, there are some 10,000 abandoned cars. Several hundreds of thousands of abandoned cars are thought to exist in the impacted region.

Another problem is that commercially valuable items such as precious metals as well as items of personal value to the owners, such as albums and Buddhist memorial tablets, must be kept for a certain period.

The government has requested that 42 prefectures share the burden of debris disposal. It is asking them what types of debris and how much they can accept. The problem has been complicated by the fact that some debris is feared to be contaminated with radioactive substances from the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The government should immediately announce standards for classifying contaminated debris, how to dispose of each category of debris and how to protect residents from possible exposure to radiation. It should also work out an efficient transport plan to move debris out of the devastated areas to dumping places.

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