Sinopec admits owning plastic pellets in spill
Sinopec last night admitted it owned the 150 tonnes of plastic pellets polluting Hong Kong's waters, after Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had earlier yesterday vowed the government would track down those responsible.
But the mainland oil giant did not elaborate on whether it had an agreement to sell or had sold the cargo of pellets, lost overboard in six shipping containers during Severe Typhoon Vicente two weeks ago.
The admission comes days after volunteers and government workers began cleaning up beaches affected.
'Liability is a complicated issue ... We will take our share of the responsibility and duty, and work with the government,' a Sinopec spokeswoman said last night.
Hours earlier, Lam said the government had yet to confirm whether Sinopec was the legal owner of the shipment, despite the company taking steps to clean the beaches.
A law professor said the shipping agent as well as the owner could be held liable for the spill.
Lam said earlier that the Department of Justice and the Marine Department were working to establish how the shipping containers were lost overboard during the typhoon and to learn details of the deal between the pellets' buyer and the shipping company.
Officials say the pellets, normally used to make plastic products, are harmless, but green campaigners say they may absorb contaminants and enter the food chain.
'Let me stress here that we will definitely be persistent in pursuing those liable,' Lam said after a visit to fish farms off Chi Ma Wan, Lantau. 'You can rest assured the Secretary of Justice himself will follow it up.'
She also said ex gratia payments would be made to affected fish farmers. Five of 26 fish culture zones in Hong Kong were hard hit by the spill.
Her comments came as more fish farmers complained about finding pellets in the stomachs of fish and as government and Sinopec workers and volunteers were still busy cleaning up beaches.
Cargo ship Yong Xin Jie 1 lost the containers loaded with plastic pellets when the storm, the biggest to hit the city in 13 years, struck on July 23 and 24. The pellets were made at a Sinopec plant. China Shipping Container Lines leased the vessel.
Felix Chan Wai-hon, a professor of shipping law at the University of Hong Kong, said if the containers first fell off the ship outside Hong Kong waters, criminal prosecution would be difficult. 'But the government can still turn to civil claims for negligence - for example fish farmers' losses and the cost of cleaning the beaches - because the damage was done here.'
It would be hard for the owner to use the typhoon as a defence for negligence, Chan said.
'We are in a hi-tech world. The typhoon did not come out of the blue and you have radar to track it down. Where there was a risk and you decided the ship should still go, negligence would be arguable.'
Cheng Siu-wah, chairman of the Outlying Islands Mariculture Association (Cheung Chau), said he had been losing HK$30,000 a day since Thursday. 'No one wants to buy our fish and even if they do, the price drops by 20 to 40 per cent.'
In the second day of its clean-up effort, Sinopec sent 30 staff to a rocky beach at Shek Pai Wan on Lamma Island. They used 10 vacuum machines to suck pellets from between rocks.
No one wants to buy our fish and even if they do, the price drops by 20 to 40 per cent Cheng Siu-wah, fish farmer