Frustrations are mounting amongst Hong Kong residents unsatisfied with the local government’s response to a shipping accident that has left their shores littered with tonnes of palm oil.
The greasy lumps originated from the collision of two vessels on 3 August near the Pear River estuary in Southern China, which released 1,000 tonnes of solidified palm oil into the ocean, reported Phys.org on 8 August.
The oil started appearing around Hong Kong on 6 August and approximately 200 tonnes of the spill was expected to wash up on the territory’s shores, deputy environment chief Tse Chin-wan told reporters.
Thirteen of the city’s most popular swimming spots had been shut down and official cleaning teams had been sent in to clean the beaches and surrounding waters, although some brave swimmers had been spotted splashing in the contaminated waters, South China Morning Post reported .
So far, 50 tonnes of oil had been recovered from Hong Kong and 38 tonnes from Guangdong, according to Tse.
Locals, however, were criticising the government’s response as insufficient and ineffectual, and groups of volunteers had taken to the beaches, where temperatures of 33°C and more had melted the oil and covered the areas in a sour, rancid stench.
“The government should put in more effort to clean up. I’m here because no one else is doing it,” volunteer Tony Mok, 31, told news agency AFP.
Robert Lokyer, who was leading the two dozen-strong volunteer team, concurred, adding: “Every morning it looks like it has snowed in Hong Kong and every afternoon it’s all melted back down under the sand.”
According to other volunteers, the government teams were working as hard as they could alongside the groups of residents, but they nonetheless questioned why the government had not done more to stop the oil from reaching the beaches.
Gary Stokes, Asia director for the marine protection group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told AFP the government should have set up pollution booms – floating barriers used to prevent spilled material from drifting ashore – and had written to the marine department requesting their deployment.
However, in the authorities’ view, the palm oil was “non-toxic” and “harmless” to humans, despite Tse saying that there was a possibility that it could spread to other areas and that the spill could “affect the environment”.
Stokes claimed the oil was hazardous to wildlife as it fuelled bacterial growth and could leave a film floating on top of water that hindered oxygen diffusion into the sea.
Additionally, he said he had observed fish going into a feeding frenzy, gorging themselves on the floating oil with unknown consequences.