Improve mechanism to report sea mishaps

It took two days for mainland authorities to inform Hong Kong about a collision in its waters that resulted in a massive spill of palm oil that has now washed up on our shores and forced the closure of beaches

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 12:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 August, 2017, 1:34am

Accidents will happen to ships, if not from the forces of nature then from human error, despite internationally recognised rules of the sea designed to prevent them. Saving seafarers and ships is paramount. But the legacy of navigation hazards and cargo spills can also imperil people, property and the environment. As a shipping hub on some of the world’s busiest lanes, Hong Kong has a vital interest in effective emergency protocols for alerting authorities to mishaps that could pose such threats. The response to a collision between two vessels in mainland waters about 10km southwest of Lantau Island last Thursday hardly meets expectations.

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A week later, Hong Kong had closed more than a dozen beaches fouled by globs of rancid palm oil that washed up from an estimated 1,000-tonne spill from one of the vessels. The beach clean-up may take another two weeks. Pollution of our waters may have been unavoidable. What sets the incident apart, and raises concerns that need to be addressed before it happens again, is that it was two days before mainland authorities informed Hong Kong about the collision and spill, and three days before residents learned of them. Meanwhile, precious time was lost to react to the possible danger faced by marine life and animals from congealed, sticky oil that binds with other organic matter. Environmental experts compared it with a crude oil spill. Animal lovers worried that dogs attracted by the smell could choke or fall ill and die, as did dozens of animals in a similar incident in Britain three years ago. Fish farmers were fearful.

The fear of the unknown recalls a similar incident five years ago, when Typhoon Vicente washed seven containers off a vessel, spilling 150 tonnes of plastic pellets that washed up on our beaches . In that case, the authorities took two weeks from the time of the mishap to try to put minds at ease about the uncertainty of the impact on the environment, sea life, and the food chain if the pellets were swallowed by fish, birds and animals. Then chief secretary, now Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, admitted officials could have done better in keeping Hongkongers informed. We expressed concern then whether this was enough to dispel doubts that safety and transparency were priorities. The latest mishap does not allay it.

As the city’s leader, Lam can call on her own experience to remind officials that swift communication is crucial to meeting threats to public and environmental safety. It is good that an environmental official has promised a review of reporting mechanisms between the city and the mainland about hazardous spills. The rule should be to raise the alert first, and then consider the danger. A false alarm in these circumstances would be good news.