Environmental experts have questioned why it took two days for mainland authorities to inform Hong Kong about a ship collision and palm oil spill that left nearly a dozen local beaches closed to the public at the weekend.
The accident took place on Thursday, but mainland authorities only reported the incident on Saturday. Affected Hong Kong residents learned of the spill on Sunday when beaches were closed.
“A notification mechanism [in place] should in theory state [the problem] as soon as possible but it’s hard to define how many days that is,” said Dr Tsang Po-keung, an associate professor of science and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong and a member of the government’s Advisory Council on the Environment.
“For some marine life, two days could be too late.”
Residents of Lamma and Lantau islands noticed congealed palm oil washed up on several beaches in the area on Sunday after it spilled into the sea when two boats crashed in mainland waters.
A similar substance was also spotted in Victoria Harbour.
Hung Shing Yeh Beach and Lo So Shing Beach on Lamma Island, as well as Lantau Island’s Pui O Beach and Tong Fuk Beach were all affected. So were both Upper and Lower Cheung Sha Beach.
Beaches at Repulse Bay, Middle Bay, South Bay, St Stephen’s Beach and Chung Hom Kok were also shut.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department hoisted the red flag at all 11 beaches, warning people not to go in the water. Parts of Cheung Chau were also reportedly affected.
Tsang said the notification mechanism should be modified to specify how many days authorities should be given to report such incidents.
“This time they may think it’s fine because it’s just palm oil, but what if next time it is gasoline?” he said.
City University chair professor of biology Paul Lam Kwan-sing said the spill did not amount to an environmental disaster but was “not a good thing”.
“Palm oil is a crystallised liquid … which will slowly be decomposed by micro-organisms. The problem is that it is a real eyesore for beachgoers,” he said.
He agreed that the notification mechanism needed to be faster and information flow more transparent.
“Both sides [Guangdong and Hong Kong] should work it out, establish a hotline and specify exactly under what circumstances the mechanism should be activated,” he said.
A spokesman for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said the beach closures came after “white, oily” substances were found in the waters and “a white granular substance” washed up on beaches.
“Beach staff immediately deployed oil-absorbent felts and strips to prevent the spread of the oil, and the relevant government departments have been notified to clean up the oil and monitor the water quality of the affected beaches,” the spokesman said.
A Marine Department spokesman confirmed two ships had collided somewhere in the Pearl River estuary, in mainland waters, on Thursday and said that had caused some of the vessel’s cargo, palm oil, to leak into the sea.
Lamma resident Sheila McClelland spotted the oil clumps floating in the water and lying on the beach as she was on her way to work and said she noticed a “faintly chemical odour” as she inspected the solid lumps.
“I pressed it with my foot and it was solid. It was a bit like play dough but not as nice,” she said. “I’ve lived here for a couple of decades and I’ve seen many forms of pollution and unpleasant stuff from oil, syringes and of course the  pellet spill. But nothing like this.”
In July 2012, seven containers fell from cargo ship Yong Xin Jie 1 when Typhoon Vicente hit the city. Six were loaded with 150 tonnes of plastic pellets, which washed up on Hong Kong beaches, sparking concern for marine life.
Lamma resident Stanley Chan Kam-wai, a conservation manager for the Eco-Education and Resources Centre, said cleaning up Sunday’s spill could be “as difficult as, if not more difficult than, cleaning up the mess” from the 2012 incident.
“Some of the oil is starting to congeal so once you press on it, it just disintegrates into powder like snow,” he said. “I’m very concerned about how the government will clean this up.”
He said by late afternoon on Sunday the smell was starting to turn rancid like the odours in alleyways behind fried snack shops.
The concern, he said, was that while most government beaches were being cleaned, the oil on non-government-run beaches would be left to rot.
Other Lamma residents on Sunday posted pictures of the substance on Facebook.
“At first glance it looked like blocks of styrofoam or cooked rice,” said one long-time Lamma resident, who spotted the stuff on Power Station Beach on Sunday morning. “It had a sort of bubbly consistency. It was along the high-tide line covering, I’d say, about two-thirds of the beach. [I’ve]never seen it before.”
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the fruit pulp of oil palm trees. Because of its versatility and low cost, it is used in many food products from fried food and margarine to ice cream, as well as in consumer products such as lipstick, shampoo and detergent.
Gary Stokes of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society said palm oil could absorb toxins in the water, making it more hazardous than in its raw form.
“People think just because it’s palm oil it’s safe but in large, highly concentrated amounts, it can’t be good for anyone,” he said.
Stokes said children and beach-goers were seen playing with the oily clumps on the shore on Sunday. “Government public communications over these kinds of accidents have definitely got to be worked on. I know it’s the weekend, but that’s when most people visit the beach,” he said.
The Environmental Protection Department said it had sent a boat to help in the clean-up.
Spills from shipping are fairly common in Hong Kong.
Last May, a 50-metre-long slick was spotted floating off Tsing Yi following a collision between an oil tanker and a mainland-registered cargo vessel.
About 493 confirmed oil spills were recorded between 2005 and 2014, according to the Marine Department, 135 of which were caused by shipping accidents or refuelling. The causes of the rest were unknown.