Carrie Lam

Officials vow to find those liable for pellet spill

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 4:29pm

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has vowed to track down whoever was responsible for the plastic-pellets spill that has polluted Hong Kong's waters. But she said the government had yet to confirm whether mainland oil giant Sinopec was the legal owner of the shipment.

A law professor, meanwhile, said the ownership would depend on the terms of the contract between Sinopec, which produced the pellets, and the buyer.

Lam said the Department of Justice was working with the Marine Department to establish how the 150 tonnes of plastic pellets, in six shipping containers lost overboard during Severe Typhoon Vicente, which hit the city two weeks ago. They were also seeking to learn details of and the deal between the pellets' buyer and the shipping company.

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 it here that we will definitely be persistent in pursuing those liable,' Lam said after a visit to fish farms off Chi Ma Wan, Lantau, yesterday. 'You can rest assured that 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. Government workers and volunteers were still busy cleaning up beaches where pellets were scattered.

Cargo ship Yong Xin Jie 1 lost the containers loaded with plastic pellets when Severe Typhoon Vicente hit the city on July 23 and 24. The pellets were made at a Sinopec plant. China Shipping Container Lines leased the vessel that transported the cargo.

So far no one has claimed ownership.

Felix Chan Wai-hon, a professor of shipping law at the Hong Kong University, said it would be necessary to examine the actual terms of the contracts of sale and carriage to determine whether the buyer or the seller was the pellets' legal owner.

If the containers first fell off the ship outside Hong Kong waters, criminal prosecution would be difficult, he said. '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 in revenue since Thursday. 'No one wants to buy our fish and even if they do, the price drops by 20 to 40 per cent.'

Cheng said his fish were consuming 30 per cent less food than usual, while three of five had pellets in their guts when cut open.

In the second day of its clean-up effort, Sinopec sent 30 staff to a rocky beach at Shek Pai Wan on Lamma Island, using 10 vacuum machines to suck the pellets from between rocks. It was slow work, though - they had to shut them down every 45 minutes.