18 January 2019
During a trip to Lamma Island, an Environment Bureau official has sought to reassure the public that Hong Kong’s marine ecosystem will emerge intact from palm oil pollution. Photo: GIS
During a trip to Lamma Island, an Environment Bureau official has sought to reassure the public that Hong Kong’s marine ecosystem will emerge intact from palm oil pollution. Photo: GIS

Palm oil spill clean-up may take 2 weeks; govt faces questions

Workers from the Environment Bureau, along with several volunteers, are continuing a clean-up operation at the beaches affected by last week’s palm oil spill in the Pearl River estuary.

A total of 13 beaches have been closed by authorities after the palm oil spill, which took place after the collision of two ships, led to congealed clumps of the oil washing ashore in Hong Kong.  

The closed facilities include some of Hong Kong’s most popular beaches in the southern district.

The cleaning work could take another two weeks before the beaches are declared safe for swimmers.

According to reports, less than 50 tons of the oil has been collected so far, out of the more than 1,000 tons of palm stearin that spilled into the water after the vessel collision in mainland territory.

As the white clumps of lipid solids floated in the waters and washed ashore, beaches had to be shut amid worries that the oily substances could irritate human skin.

Meanwhile, there are also growing concerns about an environmental disaster and marine pollution.

However, during a trip to Lamma Island, an Environment Bureau official sought to reassure the public.

Tse Chin-wan, a deputy director at the bureau, said on Tuesday that there has been no significant damage to the marine ecosystem so far, reports.

When asked why Hong Kong failed to get a quick alert from China about the oil spill, Tse said he believes mainland authorities took some time to realize the scale of the problem.   

Chinese authorities initially thought they could handle the clean-up themselves. It was only on Saturday, two days after the vessel collision, that they fathomed the possibility that the oil could come in Hong Kong direction, according to Tse.

The alert, when it finally came, happened before the oil began drifting into Hong Kong waters, the official said, adding that there is nothing wrong with the current notification system.

The comment came as a lawmaker, Jeremy Tam Man-ho, criticized the current system, saying the Hong Kong government was not informed about the oil spill in a timely manner by the mainland.

Tam said he is also disappointed that Hong Kong authorities have not proactively disclosed more information about the spill.

Tse, meanwhile, remarked that palm oil is not harmful to the human body, saying it can be found commonly even in instant noodles.

Au Wai-kwong from the Environmental Protection Department (EPC) pointed out that palm oil does not melt until heated up to 59 degrees Celsius.

Tests from Sunday and Monday at 11 beaches have shown that 90 percent of the water samples do not contain palm oil.

The EPC will continue to sample all the affected beaches. The Marine Department, meanwhile, has assured that it will stay in contact with the Guangdong government for updates on the marine spill.

Chan Kam-wai from the Eco-Education and Resource Centre said he hopes the government will clear out the palm oil as soon as possible.

He said he cannot confirm Tse’s theory that the oil is not harmful to humans.

Chan, who is a Lamma Island resident, pointed out that there are other ecological damages that can be caused by the oil, similar to the micro plastic incident five years ago.

He noted that environmental groups from England have recorded some incidents where dogs have died after ingesting polluted palm oil.

As the mating season approaches for the Green Sea Turtle, Lamma Island residents are worried about the possible impact of the marine pollution.

Since the mating grounds for the species are generally located near the southern part of island which has been affected by the pollution, there are concerns that the turtles would no longer return to Hong Kong.

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