JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. government and West Coast states don't have a cohesive plan for cleaning up the rubble that floats to American shores.

There is also no firm handle yet on just what to expect.

The Japanese government estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the catastrophe. Some experts in the United States think the bulk of that trash will never reach shore, while others fear a massive, slowly-unfolding environmental disaster.

"I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast" in terms of the debris' weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline.

David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service, told a U.S. Senate panel last month that in most cases debris removal decisions will fall to individual states. Funding hasn't been determined.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and other West Coast political leaders, have called that scenario unacceptable, saying tsunami debris poses a pending national emergency. "If this was a one-time event all at once, we'd declare it an emergency and we'd be on the ground like that," he said, during the hearing he led.

One astonishing example of how the unexpected can suddenly appear occurred Wednesday in Oregon when a concrete and metal dock that measured 66 feet long, seven feet tall and 19 feet wide, washed ashore a mile north of Newport. A Japanese consulate official in Portland confirmed that the dock came from the northern Japanese city of Misawa, cut loose in the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

"I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that's coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won't be able to identify," Pallister said.

His group, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, works in the same region devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989.

Tsunami debris is tough to monitor. Winds and ocean currents regularly change, while rubbish can break up. Some trash, like fishing gear, kerosene and gas containers and building supplies, can be tied to the tsunami only anecdotally. But in other cases — a soccer ball and a derelict fishing boat in Alaska and a motorcycle in British Columbia, for example — items have been traced back to the disaster through their owners.

NOAA projects the debris having spread over an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, but can't pinpoint when or how much might eventually reach the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.

An independent group of scientists and environmental activists are scheduled to sail aboard the "Sea Dragon" from Japan Saturday to an area north of the Hawaiian islands, with plans to zigzag through the debris, document what's floating and try to determine what might reach the West Coast.

"You have a unique experiment," said Marcus Eriksen, a researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, Calif., who is leading the expedition. "You have entire homes and all their contents ... anything you may find in a Japanese home could be floating in the ocean still intact."

Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has been tracking ocean trash for 20 years, predicts the main mass of tsunami debris will reach the U.S. coast from Northern California to southeast Alaska as early as October, with the beginning of fall storms.

Cleanup plans should be finalized no later than September, Ebbesmeyer cautioned. There may also be sensitive issues to be decided, he said, including how to deal with any human remains or personal mementos.

But just who will clean up the debris and who will pay for it hasn't been fully determined.

Begich wants to make at least $45 million available for local community groups to conduct clean-up efforts. Gulf of Alaska Keeper believes Congress should set aside $50 million a year for four years.

As it stands now, NOAA has $618,000 allocated to clean up tsunami debris. The agency's total marine debris program budget could drop by 26 percent to $3.4 million, under President Obama's proposed budget.

Marine trash isn't a new problem. The ocean is littered with all kinds of things that can trap and kill wildlife, hurt human health and navigation and blight beaches.

NOAA has previously given grants to local groups for cleanup work. The agency expects the tsunami debris to simply add to the ongoing problem of massive amounts of trash flowing into the ocean every day.

Volunteers in California report their efforts being stretched thin just in dealing with day-to-day rubbish. Seasonal opportunity for cleanup could close as early as September at spots in Alaska, where some beaches are accessible only by boat or aircraft and removing trash can be difficult and expensive. Washington has monitored some incoming debris for radioactivity.

Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, said more recognition needs to be given to the fact that it will be beach cleanup volunteers who respond to tsunami debris.

"Given that, I would like to see more state and federal support for the volunteer programs that will be taking the lead," he said. They're going to need help, resources and funding, he said.

NOAA's marine debris program expects solid plans from the states within the next few months. The governors of Washington, Oregon and California, as well as the premier of British Columbia, have said they will work together to manage debris.

Widespread or concentrated die-offs of marine animals aren't expected, said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace, but there could be local impacts.

NOAA officials say they don't think there's any radiation risk from the debris, despite the meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Alaska and Washington, said he thinks states, local governments, volunteers and industries including fishing and tourism need to pull together to clean up debris, and not simply wait and hope for federal funds.

"One of the things standing in the way is a unified, coordinated approach to this," he said.

Pallister worried that a lack of awareness may hamper the effort.

"You just don't have that visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to having oiled otters and drowned seabirds in that crude to get the public pumped up about it," he said of the tsunami debris. "And even if you could get the public pumped up, again, you don't have that culprit to go after — a bad guy. It's kind of a tough one to deal with."

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McAvoy reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., and Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Online: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/japan-debris/

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  • This photo taken Sunday April 7, 2013 and provided by the Del Norte Triplicate shows a 20-foot fishing boat that washed up in Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Del Norte Triplicate, Bryant Anderson)

  • A member of the Washington tsunami debris experts team stands on a dock Friday Dec. 21, 2012 that apparently floated from Japan after last year's tsunami and just washed ashore on a Washington beach near Forks Tuesday. (AP Photo/Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife)

  • Members of the Washington tsunami debris experts team inspect a dock Friday Dec. 21, 2012 that apparently floated from Japan after last year's tsunami and just washed ashore on a Washington beach near Forks Tuesday. (AP Photo/National Park Service)

  • In this file photo from Wednesday, June 6, 2012, a man looks at a 70-foot-long dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach in Newport, Ore. The West Coast is anticipating more debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami to wash ashore this winter. Scientists expect the bulk of the tsunami debris to end up in the Pacific Northwest. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, Joshua Marvit, of the State of Hawaii Dept. of Health, tests a 16-foot skiff for radiation after the vessel was salvaged by the crew of the F/V Zephyr approximately 800 miles north of Honolulu, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. The skiff was confirmed to have been debris from the 2011 Japan Tsunami by the Japanese Consulate, after they contacted the owner, through the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and confirmed that they did not seek its return. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler, U.S. Coast Guard / AP)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, Joshua Marvit, of the State of Hawaii Dept. of Health, tests a 16-foot skiff for radiation after the vessel was salvaged by the crew of the F/V Zephyr approximately 800 miles north of Honolulu, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. The skiff was confirmed to have been debris from the 2011 Japan Tsunami by the Japanese Consulate, after they contacted the owner, through the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and confirmed that they did not seek its return. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler, U.S. Coast Guard / AP)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, Joshua Marvit, of the State of Hawaii Dept. of Health, tests a 16-foot skiff for radiation after the vessel was salvaged by the crew of the F/V Zephyr approximately 800 miles north of Honolulu, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. The skiff was confirmed to have been debris from the 2011 Japan Tsunami by the Japanese Consulate, after they contacted the owner, through the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and confirmed that they did not seek its return. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler, U.S. Coast Guard / AP)

  • In this photo taken June 20, 2012 and provided courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Alaska student Derek Chamberlin stands atop a large ship's mooring buoy, found by NOAA marine debris scientists at Whale Bay, North Cape on Baranof Island during a recent survey of southeast Alaska beaches for marine debris. (AP Photo/NOAA, Jacek Maselko)

  • This image provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a 20-foot, open boat found beached Friday June 15, 2012 on Washington's Benson Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park festooned with hundreds of what state Fish and Wildlife officials said are gooseneck barnacles. (AP Photo/NOAA)

  • A piece of debris is washed up on a beach in Ocean Shores, Wash., on Monday, June 18, 2012. While it is unknown if this particular item is from the tsunami, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire announced Monday a state plan to address tsunami debris that reaches the state's coast from Japan but stressed that federal help is needed.. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

  • This photo taken June 18, 2012 and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a black buoy at a beach on the south side of Noyes Island, east of Cape Addington where scientists have found it and others on a recent survey of southeast Alaska shorelines. (AP Photo/NOAA)

  • This photo taken Wednesday, June 6, 2012 and supplied by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, shows a large dock that washed ashore early Tuesday on Agate Beach, a mile north of Newport, Ore. The nearly 70-foot-long dock was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami and drifted across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, a Japanese Consulate official said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation)

  • In this photo taken by Canadian Peter Mark in the end of April, 2012, and released on Wednesday, May 2, a Harley-Davidson motorbike lies on a beach in Graham Island, western Canada. Japanese media say the motorcycle lost in last year's tsunami washed up on the island about 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) away. The rusted bike was originally found by Mark in a large white container where its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, had kept it. The container was later washed away, leaving the motorbike half-buried in the sand. Yokoyama, who lost three members of his family in the March 11, 2011, tsunami, was located through the license plate number, Fuji TV reported Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, Peter Mark)

  • In a photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard the unmanned Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-un Maru dirfts northwest in the Gulf of Alaska approximately 164 miles southwest of Baranof Island Wednesday April 4, 2012. The vessel has been adrift since it was launched by the tsunami caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan last year. The Coast Guard is monitoring the vessel, which is currently considered a hazard to navigation. (AP Photo/Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, U.S. Coast Guard)

  • In this April 21, 2012 photo released by The Baxters via Kyodo News, David and Yumi Baxter hold a soccer ball and a volleyball which David found, at their house in the suburbs of Anchorage, Alaska. Kyodo News agency says the teenage owner of the soccer ball that apparently floated across the Pacific Ocean after last year's tsunami is surprised and thankful the ball - which had his name written on it - was found in Alaska. (AP Photo/The Baxters via Kyodo News)

  • Japanese Float Tsunami Debris

    This May 28, 2012 photo provided by Chris Pallister shows a Japanese float is collected on the shore of Montague Island near Seward, Alaska. More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, neither the U.S. government nor some West Coast states have a clear plan for how to clean up the rubble that floats to American shores. (AP Photo/Chris Pallister)

  • Peter Clarkson

    In this April, 17, 2012, photo, artist Peter Clarkson poses with a portion of a totem pole that he has been building in Tofino, British Columbia. Clarkson made the pole with what he believes are tsunami-related Japanese floats, barrels and Styrofoam. While yet to be raised, the totem links Japan, First Nations and non-First Nations cultures and raises awareness about the ongoing problem of ocean garbage, said Clarkson. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

  • In this Dec. 20, 2011 photo provided by Dave Kubiak, Alexus Kwachka holds a yellow float in Kodiak, Alaska. The float, along with 6 others, have been identified as coming from oyster farms in Japan after the tsunami. (AP Photo/ Dave Kubiak)

  • Japanese Float Tsunami Debris

    In this June 6, 2012 photo provided by Chris Pallister, debris is strewn across the shore of Montague Island near Seward, Alaska. More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, neither the U.S. government nor some West Coast states have a clear plan for how to clean up the rubble that floats to American shores. (AP Photo/Chris Pallister)

  • Japanese Float Tsunami Debris

    In this June 6, 2012 photo provided by Ryan Pallister, Patrick Chandler removes tsunami debris on Montague Island near Seward, Alaska. More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, neither the U.S. government nor some West Coast states have a clear plan for how to clean up the rubble that floats to American shores. (AP Photo/Gulf of Alaska Keeper, Ryan Pallister)

  • This image provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a 20-foot, open boat found beached Friday June 15, 2012 on Washington's Benson Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park festooned with hundreds of what state Fish and Wildlife officials said are gooseneck barnacles. Officials are warning the public to stay clear, just in case the boat might harbor any invasive plant or animal species. State fish and wildlife personnel will work on that assessment, the spokesman said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken information written on the boat and is working with the Japanese consulate in Seattle to determine whether it came from Japan and, if so, whether it might have gone through the 2011 tsunami, Washington state Ecology Department spokesman Curt Hart said. (AP Photo/NOAA)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the derelict Japanese fishing vessel RYOU-UN MARU drifts more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska where it entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012. The vessel has been adrift since it was launched by a tsunami caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan last year. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a plume of smoke rises from a derelict Japanese ship after it was hit by canon fire by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Thursday, April 5, 2012, in the Gulf of Alaska. The Coast Guard decided to sink the ship dislodged by last year's tsunami because it was a threat to maritime traffic and could have an environmental impact if it grounded. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen)

  • In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a plume of smoke rises from the derelict Japanese ship Ryou-Un Maru after it was hit by canon fire by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Thursday, April 5, 2012, in the Gulf of Alaska. The Coast Guard decided to sink the ship dislodged by last year's tsunami because it was a threat to maritime traffic and could have an environmental impact if it grounded. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard)

  • A rust-encrusted Harley-Davidson motorcycle, shown in this undated handout photo by Peter Mark, made buoyant by the sea container in which it was stored, washed up on an island off the coast of British Columbia after it was lost in last year's tsunami in Japan, about 6,400 kilometres away. (AP Photo/CBC-Peter Mark, The Canadian Press)

  • Steve Drane, Ralph Tieleman

    Ralph Tieleman, second left, dealership owner Steve Drane, and onlookers look at Ikuo Yokoyama's 2004 Harley-Davidson Night Train that was swept to sea during the Japanese tsunami, in Langford, British Columbia, Sunday May 6, 2012. The motorcycle is nearing the final stretch in its journey home. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chad Hipolito)

  • In this undated photo taken before March 11, 2011 by its owner Ikuo Yokoyama and distributed by Japan's Kyodo News, a Harley-Davidson sits in the garage in Kakuda, Niyagi Prefecture, northern Japan. Japanese media said Wednesday, May 2, 2012, the motorcycle lost in March 11, 2011 tsunami washed up on a Canadian island about 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) away. (AP Photo/Ikuo Yokoyama via Kyodo News)

  • Massive dock, potentially tsunami debris, hits Oregon Coast

    Scientists from OSU and BLM agents inspect a massive dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach on Wednesday, June 6, 2012 a mile north of Newport, Ore. Evidence is mounting that the nearly 70-foot floating dock that washed ashore came from an area of Japan devastated by last year's tsunami. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd)

  • This photo taken Wednesday, June 6, 2012 and supplied by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, shows a large dock that washed ashore early Tuesday on Agate Beach, a mile north of Newport, Ore. The nearly 70-foot-long dock was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami and drifted across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, a Japanese Consulate official said Wednesday.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation)

  • A man looks at the massive dock with Japanese lettering that washed ashore on Agate Beach Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Newport, Ore. A nearly 70-foot-long dock that floated ashore on an Oregon beach was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami and drifted across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, a Japanese Consulate official said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department Thursday, June 7, 2012, shows an exotic pink Japanese acorn barnacle attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore. State authorities are considering how to dispose of the millions of marine creatures that hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean aboard the dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami so they will not compound the problem of invasive species.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, ho)

  • This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department Thursday, June 7, 2012, shows exotic mussels attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore. State authorities are considering how to dispose of the millions of marine creatures that hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean aboard the dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami so they will not compound the problem of invasive species.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, ho)

  • This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department Thursday, June 7, 2012, shows an invasive specie commonly known as "wakame" attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore. State authorities are considering how to dispose of the millions of marine creatures that hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean aboard the dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami so they will not compound the problem of invasive species.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, ho)

  • This photo, taken by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department Thursday, June 7, 2012, shows an exotic mussel attached to a dock float that washed up on Agate Beach Tuesday near Newport, Ore. State authorities are considering how to dispose of the millions of marine creatures that hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean aboard the dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami so they will not compound the problem of invasive species.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, ho)

  • This photo taken Wednesday, June 6, 2012 and supplied by the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, shows the metal plaque from a large dock that washed ashore early Tuesday on Agate Beach, a mile north of Newport, Ore. The nearly 70-foot-long dock was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami and drifted across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, a Japanese Consulate official said Wednesday.(AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation)

  • In this Thursday, June 7, 2012 photo proivded by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department, unidentified workers shovel debris from the top of a dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami that washed up Tuesday on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore. Workers with shovels, rakes and other tools first scraped the structure clean, then briefly used low-pressure torches to sterilize the dock that was. (AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department)

  • The surf pounds against the massive dock that washed ashore on Agate Beach Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Newport, Ore. A nearly 70-foot-long dock that floated ashore on an Oregon beach was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami and drifted across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, a Japanese Consulate official said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • In this Thursday, June 7, 2012 photo proivded by the Oregon Park and Recreations Department, an unidentified worker burns off debris from of a dock float torn loose from a Japanese fishing port by the 2011 tsunami that washed up Tuesday on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore. Workers with shovels, rakes and other tools first scraped the structure clean, then briefly used low-pressure torches to sterilize the dock. (AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation Department)

  • Raw Video: Coast Guard Sinks Ghost Ship

    The U.S. Coast Guard used cannon fire to sink an empty Japanese ship in the Gulf of Alaska. The "ghost ship" drifted across the Pacific after last year's tsunami. (April 6)