Discarded harbor floats present a cleanup headache

Pieces of rigid foam — polystyrene — broken away from harbor floats installed in the 1970s and 1980s are bobbing along Wrangell’s waters and washing up on beaches along Zimovia Strait.

Holdovers from the Shoemaker Bay harbor float replacement project in 2018, the pieces were part of 60- to 80-foot-long old floats that the borough sold in 2018 when it should have trashed them, Port Director Steve Miller said.

While records were kept of the individuals who bought the old floats, it’s now impossible to identify who owns the debris floating in the water. Over the past three to four years, 10-foot-square pieces have been found — a microtrash-generating mix of concrete and foam that lingers in the environment.

Public Works Director Tom Wetor said between 10 to 20 of the pieces are floating around and washing up on beaches from town to Shoemaker Bay. “No one knows who bought them,” Wetor said. “Public works will have to foot the bill (for the cleanup), and so will everyone else, to pay for what should have been handled by private citizens.”

The fragments are tricky to dispose of, he said. When an attempt is made to pick up a waterlogged piece, the small, fused-together polystyrene beads, a petroleum byproduct, the same as what’s in a foam cup, break apart into a million little pieces, Wetor said.

The fragments are a mishmash of foam, wood and concrete. Retrieving the chunks from the water and beaches is a significant project.

Newer floats, Miller said, are made of encapsulated foam. “In the past, it was open cell,” Miller said. “It was really horrible stuff. It would soak up as much water as a sponge. If they filled up, your floats would start sinking — and they were soaking up at Shoemaker Bay harbor.”

Some buyers of the old floats took care to reuse or contain the sections, “but it took a ton of work to do what they needed to do,” Miller said.

A lot of the concrete wasn't all that good either, he said. “Concrete in this kind of weather just does not go together.”

The Shoemaker Bay replacement floats are made of wood, a better construction material, because concrete shatters in the winter. And saltwater and concrete are a bad mix. “I wish the people who purchased the floats would have taken care of them,” Miller said.

A beach cleanup is in the works for the spring, said Valerie Massie, coordinator at Wrangell Cooperative Association’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program, or IGAP. Massie said the project is led by IGAP technician Kim Wickman.

The borough expects to use the net float at Shoemaker Bay as a collection point for the debris.

“Ultimately, I told Kim (Wickman), get them to the net float, we will figure out where to go from there,” Wetor said. “It is a problem, it is waste that is on the beach. It will also be a tricky process because of the materials in the makeup of the floats. It’s concrete, wood and foam. You have to remove the foam and ship that out with the trash.”

WCA IGAP will be coordinating a cleanup effort with the U.S. Forest Service, borough public works department, and high school science teacher Heather Howe’s tech club students.

David Rak, a forester at the U.S. Forest Service, said Wickman made an inventory on Google Earth of locations where debris has washed up.

Howe’s students have used drones to create videos for the Wrangell Medical Center and Alaska Vistas tour company, taking the drones on glacier tours up the Stikine River for a bird’s-eye view of the scenery. Massie said the students’ drones could possibly help aid in the search for float fragments.


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