A volunteer picks up clumps of palm oil washed up on a beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (EPA photo)
HONG KONG – Lumps of congealed palm oil leaked after a collision of two cargo ships last week off the coast of southern China have been gathering in Hong Kong waters for days, forcing authorities to close down 13 beaches over safety concerns.
The collision happened last Thursday near the Pearl River estuary off the coast of Guangdong Province, whose government notified Hong Kong two days later after it failed to contain the spillage, Undersecretary for the Environment Tse Chin-wan said on Tuesday.
“On Saturday, when the Guangdong side informed the (Hong Kong) marine department, the palm oil had not yet reached Hong Kong,” Tse told the press after touring one of the 13 closed beaches.
“When it found that the incident may affect Hong Kong, they immediately informed us of the incident,” he said, adding that the oil spill notification mechanism between Guangdong and Hong Kong worked “very well this time.”
The white blobs of palm oil started showing up on the coast Sunday, mostly on the southern shores of Hong Kong Island and outlying Lamma Island.
Tse said Guangdong authorities estimated that 1,000 tonnes of palm oil leaked out, but only some of it came Hong Kong’s way.
About 90 tonnes have been scooped up the Marine Department and cleansing teams, and they are now working to clean up to 200 tonnes more.
The clumps of gelatinous oil are seen sticking to the sand and rocks, tangling with debris on the beaches affected.
The oil is not considered toxic but it could coat the water surface and reduce oxygen levels, endangering the lives of sea creatures, according to environmentalists.
Local media reported dead fish washed up on the shore, some with their gills caked in solidified oil, while dog owners have been warned that their pets could either choke or fall ill from ingesting chunks of rancid oil.