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Despite Bush vow, the trash piles up

Two years ago, with fanfare, President Bush declared a remote chain of Hawaiian islands the biggest, most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world.

It hasn't worked out that way.

Cleanup has slowed, garbage is still piling up, and Bush has cut his budget request by 80 percent.

Winning rare praise from conservationists, the president declared the 140,000-square- mile chain in northwestern Hawaii the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June 2006.

His proclamation featured some of the strictest measures ever placed on a marine environment. Any material that might injure the area's sensitive coral reefs and 7,000 rare species – a fourth of them found nowhere else in the world – would be prohibited.

Many who had fought to get the islands protected thought making the area a monument would accelerate debris pickup. Instead, after an expensive and aggressive sweep in 2002-05, the administration decided to downshift to a maintenance level.

Ocean currents are still bringing an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear to the 10 islands and the waters surrounding them each year. Endangered monk seals are still being snared and coral reefs smothered by discarded fishing nets. Albatrosses are still feeding on indigestible plastic and feeding it to their young.

The combination of currents, remote location and a plethora of endangered species make marine debris in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands arguably the worst ocean trash problem in the world. Circular currents funnel trash from all over the Pacific Ocean to the islands as if they were a drain in a gigantic sink.

Debris removal, meanwhile, has fallen to 35 tons a year since the islands became a monument, about a third of the 102 tons that boats and divers collected on average before that, including junk that was already there.

And the Bush administration slashed the debris cleanup budget from the $2.1 million spent in 2005, requesting only $400,000 a year through 2008.

Bush now wants an extra $100,000 for removing the smorgasbord of lighters, plastic bottles, refrigerators and fishing nets. But the total amount he would spend in 2009 is still only about 25 percent of what was being spent four years earlier.

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