Silence on plastic pellets bred unease

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:11pm


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There is no greater worry than fear of the unknown. Snow-like piles of plastic pellets washing up on beaches may not seem something to be feared, but the uncertainty of their impact on the environment, sea life, animals and the food chain are another matter. Yet authorities took two weeks from the time seven shipping containers of pellets were washed off a vessel during Typhoon Vicente to try to put minds at ease. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's admission that the government could have done a better job of keeping Hongkongers informed does not make us feel better; there are still doubts safety and transparency are a priority.

The pellets by themselves are not harmful - they are the raw material for plastic bottles. But authorities say 150 tonnes were swept into the sea and, with less than half recovered, environmental pollution is a concern. Unanswered also is what happens if they are swallowed by fish, birds and animals. The government is investigating and until there are findings there is every reason to be cautious.

Those are matters of urgency, yet until last Monday there had been no official announcement. Port authorities alerted shipping of the dangers posed by floating containers on July 24, but there the message ended. Two days later, the pellets began washing up off Discovery Bay and environmental concern groups mobilised volunteers and alerted authorities. Clean-up crews swept into action on outlying islands and the manufacturer of the pellets, Sinopec, sent representatives, but government ministers, departments and bureaus were, as far as most residents were concerned, unaware of the problem.

Lam has assured us that this was not the case and a clutch of officials faced the media to detail the measures taken. She has promised that from now on there will be better co-ordination between departments and greater transparency. We should feel assured, but the two-week silence about what some see as an environmental disaster leaves a sense of unease. It harks back to June 2010, when authorities made a similar pledge after a month-long delay in publicising an incident at the Daya Bay nuclear power plant.

Vicente was the worst typhoon to hit our city in 13 years and authorities had their hands full taking care of the injured, damage to property and the hundreds of trees that had been felled. Given the pressures, it would be wrong to accuse the government of being negligent in the way it has handled the clean-up. Those who have been collecting storm debris from beaches know how difficult it is to separate pellets from the sand and they are still washing up. But these are no excuses for a lack of communication. The government has an obligation to explain and be transparent where public interest is concerned, no matter how minor an incident may seem.