(UPDATING EARLIER STORY) The government handling of the palm oil spill is under scrutiny on multiple fronts with the revelation that it took place just 4km from local waters and amid claims that it is downplaying the health risks.
Roy Tam from environmental group Green Sense says he’s been told by the Marine Department the collision on August 3 took place only 5.7 kilometres away from the Soko Islands, just off Lantau’s southern coast, and only four kilometres from local waters.
But the government has described the incident as taking place in the Pearl River Estuary, which does cover waters south of Lantau, but the phrase suggests it was some distance from the city and most likely west or northwest of Lantau Tam told told Hong Kong Free Press:
“I don’t understand why the Hong Kong government did not use a more familiar name to refer to the location of the crash. When they say ‘Pearl River estuary,’ the inference is that it is far away from Hong Kong. However, the collision happened only four kilometres from us… ”
The government has also begun reopening beaches, including three on Lantau, but has been accused of ignoring the health hazards posed by the palm oil debris. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department believes Hong Kong beaches could be hit by as much as 700 tonnes of palm oil next week, depending on currents.
Robert Lockyer, a marine environmental campaigner who has organised cleanup operations on Lamma, warns that while palm oil is safe in small quantities, in large volumes it functions “like a huge petri dish for bacteria.”
He urges the public to stay away from all beaches until the spill has been completely cleaned. Several volunteers who had helped collected oil debris on Lamma over the weekend had become ill, reporting vomiting, diarrhoea and nausea, he said.
Lamma beaches and Pui O Beach on Lantau remain closed, but last Saturday the government announced Upper Cheung Sha, Lower Cheung Sha and Tong Fuk beaches had reopened to the public. Volunteer cleaning operations took place at Pui O as well as Lamma on the weekend.
Lockyer said local people were collecting the material and taking it home for candles or soap-making, believing it to be safe. One woman even said she would use it to cook food for pets. “We need to get the information out that this is not cool to be taking home.”
A press release issued on behalf of Lockyer and the volunteers states:
The palm oil coats plastic trash and the plastic trash floats ashore, collecting marine bacteria and micro-organisms as it lands on the beach or in the sand and decays. Clumps of palm stearin absorb micro-plastics, marine debris and chemicals dumped into the sea.
A spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Department said it would continue monitoring the situation. “It has been safe so far,” she added.
The department said today it had found a “significant improvement” in the level of oil in the water but urged swimmers to “not to play with or take in palm stearin, and to rinse their feet before entering changing rooms.”
It said it would work with other departments in monitoring the spill helping the cleanup, “with a view to reopening the remaining beaches concerned as soon as possible.”