Hong Kong government seeks legal advice for damage claims over palm oil spill

Undersecretary for the environment says authorities are in talks with two ship owners involved in collision, and reviewing how to manage collected oil

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 12:57pm

The Hong Kong government is seeking legal advice to claim damages from the owners of two vessels which collided on Thursday, causing hundreds of tonnes of palm oil to leak into the sea, with some washing up on the city’s beaches.

After days of uncertainty, undersecretary for the environment Tse Chin-wan released more details about the accident, including that the companies owning the ships were not based in mainland China.

It was also revealed that the collision took place off the southern coast of Dazhi Zhou in mainland waters, about 10km southwest of Lantau Island.

Swimmers spotted on closed Hong Kong beaches despite palm oil spill

Tse also pledged to review a reporting mechanism between Hong Kong and the mainland about oil spills.

The government was in dialogue with the vessel owners and the Department of Justice will be involved in claiming damages.

Beach clean-ups will take up to two weeks, according to Tse.

He added that the government was discussing with ship owners how to handle the collected oil, which was technically still private property.

“We have some preliminary information about the vessels and the shipping companies involved,” Tse said. “We are communicating with them.”

He said authorities had been considering various solutions, such as using the oil for fuel. But he did not rule out the possibility that the oil could end up in the city’s landfills.

Tse declined to disclose the names of the companies or where they were based, citing legal concerns.

“We will follow up on the issue with the Department of Justice in terms of seeking responsibility and the cost of cleaning up,” Tse said in a media gathering on Wednesday.

One of the vessels carried 9,000 tonnes of palm oil and some 1,000 tonnes leaked into the sea in the collision, with at least 200 tonnes ending up on Hong Kong shores. The incident led to the closure of 13 beaches.

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Fears were raised on whether the congealed globs of oil, said to be non-toxic to humans, would pose a threat to marine life and dogs.

Tse said there would be a review of communication procedures between Hong Kong and mainland authorities, as well as between local government departments, to see if the system could be improved.

As of Thursday, Hong Kong had scooped up 130 tonnes of oil, with at least 48 tonnes collected from the sea.

Aerial surveys indicated that most of the oil in the sea had been cleared. Water quality tests showed that oil content was low, Tse said.

The situation on beaches, however, remains dire. At Upper and Lower Cheung Sha Beach in south Lantau, lumps of slushy oil were still clinging to the shoreline, mixed with sand, debris and marine litter.

“Today, we filled more than 20 bags already ... each weighing about 30kg. There just seems to be more and more of it coming,” one government cleaning contractor said.

“Go look over there [on lower Cheung Sha] – it will make your eyes pop out,” another worker added.

Fisheries sector lawmaker Steven Ho Chun-yin said the government had been slow to respond to large-scale marine pollution problems and had “repeatedly failed to learn from lessons in the past”.