Hong Kong cleans up 93 tonnes of palm oil after huge spill caused by vessel collision

A volunteer picks up clumps of palm oil washed up on a beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong on Aug 8, 2017.
A volunteer picks up clumps of palm oil washed up on a beach on Lamma Island in Hong Kong on Aug 8, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong has scooped up over 90 tonnes of palm oil and closed more than a dozen beaches after a ship spill washed foul-smelling, Styrofoam-like clumps ashore, the latest major environmental disaster to blight the territory's waters.

Dead fish, shells, rocks, plastic bottles and other rubbish could still be found coated with globules of palm oil on beaches across the Chinese-controlled territory on Wednesday (Aug 9), six days after two vessels collided in the Pearl River estuary.

The spill has sparked outrage among some residents and environmentalists and comes just a year after mountains of rubbish washed up on Hong Kong's beaches, with labels and packaging indicating most of it had come from mainland China.

The government said late on Tuesday it had collected 93 tonnes of palm oil, most of it congealed, and that the amount of the substance floating in Hong Kong waters was decreasing.

It has closed 13 beaches since Sunday, a day after it said it had been informed of the spill by mainland authorities. Media said the accident happened last Thursday.

Environmental groups have said that the scale of the spill could have severe ecological consequences, although the government said preliminary tests showed low traces of oil from affected areas.

Media reported that 1,000 tonnes of palm oil spilled into the water after the vessels collided. The impact on the territory's marine life, which includes the endangered Chinese white dolphins - also known as pink dolphins - was not immediately clear.

On Pui O beach on Lantau Island, large stinking clumps of congealed palm oil dotted the shoreline, while a formation of rocks popular with children for climbing at one end were coated with the slippery substance.

The spill comes at the height of summer, when beaches and outlying islands are packed with daytrippers, campers and holiday makers, especially at weekends.

Hong Kong has sweltered in temperatures of around 33 deg C for over a week, with little relief seen over the next few days, a factor some environmentalists said could exacerbate the problem as it would oxidise the palm oil.

The possibility of an algae bloom formed by decaying palm oil, which would compete with fish for oxygen, would be a huge threat.

The Environmental Protection Department said it would continue collecting samples from beaches and would recommend re-opening the beaches concerned by phases once the water quality is confirmed safe.

Hong Kong's coastal waters and beaches are often strewn with rubbish from mainland China, where some companies discharge waste into the sea to save the cost of proper disposal, according to conservationists.