Oil spill highlights lack of cross-border teamwork

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 December, 2004, 12:00am

The big oil spill near the mouth of the Pearl River last week had the potential to cause great environmental damage - and it happened on Hong Kong's doorstep.

But as the slick spread, there has been little sign of urgency or even concern in Hong Kong. The prevailing attitude seems to be that the wind was blowing the oil away from our waters, so there was no need to worry.

More than a week after the two container ships collided, the Marine Department remains on standby and says it has received no response from the mainland to its offers of help. The mainland authorities, on the other hand, claim they have not received such an offer.

This ineffective response does little to inspire confidence in the system for cross-border co-operation. In the meantime, a huge clean-up operation was launched by mainland officials who now claim to have the slick under control. But little information has been made available.

The accident highlights the serious threat posed by oil spills in the busy seas near the mouth of the Pearl River. It also suggests that plans for a cross-border response need to be reviewed.

Mainland officials have described the spill as the biggest in China's history. They say 1,200 tonnes of crude oil have poured into the sea, causing a slick that last week was 17km long and 200 metres wide.

The collision occurred in a vulnerable area. It is close to the Pearl River delta's fishing grounds and just a few kilometres away from Hong Kong's waters.

According to one mainland official, the slick could have had huge economic consequences for Hong Kong if it had drifted into our city's waters. The contamination would inflict serious damage on our marine life, beaches and tourism industry. These are not the sort of warnings to be taken lightly. But little has been said publicly about the spill by officials in Hong Kong.

When a similar collision caused a spill in 1998, concerns were raised about the lack of a cross-border response. Since then, a mechanism for joint action has been put in place. The action plan covers Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Macau and Guangdong. A high-profile joint-training exercise to prepare for any possible oil spill was conducted in 2000. It was hailed as a demonstration of the Marine Department's ability to deal with such a crisis and the teamwork of all the participants was praised.

But when the real emergency came last week - on an even bigger scale than the one envisaged in the exercise - the Marine Department's vessels played no part in combating it. This is regrettable, as the department learned of the collision at an early stage and could have made a valuable contribution.

Having a joint response plan is all very well - but it serves little purpose unless it is put into practice.