The government closed two more government-gazetted beaches on Tuesday as a palm oil spill continues to affect bays across the territory.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department hoisted red flags at Deep Water Bay Beach and Turtle Cove Beach in Southern District, Hong Kong Island, after oil sightings were reported. Thirteen beaches have now been closed until further notice. Beach-goers have been advised to avoid swimming in the affected areas.

The spill occurred after two cargo vessels collided last Thursday near the Pearl River estuary in southern China, but Hong Kong was only notified on Saturday.

St. Stephen’s Beach in Southern District was closed on Monday. Repulse Bay, Middle Bay, South Bay and Chung Hom Kok beach were closed on Sunday. Similar slicks were reported at Hung Shing Yeh, Lo So Shing, Pui O, Upper Cheung Sha, Lower Cheung Sha and Tong Fuk beach on Lamma and Lantau Island.

See more: In Pictures: 10 Hong Kong beaches closed after cargo ship collision causes palm oil spill

Palm oil is edible and not hazardous in small quantities. However, environmental groups have said that the scale of the spill could have “disastrous” ecological consequences.

Lamma Island. Photo: Robert Lockyer.

After visiting a beach on Lamma Island, Undersecretary for the Environment Tse Chin-wan said palm oil was common in food such as instant noodles, but the large-scale oil spill has caused environmental hazards.

“If it stays for a long time, it may cause ecological issues,” he said.

Tse said that no spills were found at the five marine parks under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

“So far, we have seen no large-scale effect on marine life or issues regarding fish – but in order not to affect the environment, we will speed up the clean-up,” Tse said.

He said 50 tons the substance has been cleared, but he believed there are still 100 to 200 tons left to clean up.

Tse said the collision was several nautical miles away from Hong Kong’s territory, and the notification mechanism states that it will be activated only if Hong Kong will be affected.

According to Tse, the Guangdong province launched clean-up procedures on their own after the collision, and notified Hong Kong after the spill was thought to affect other places. He said he believed there was no delay in notification.

Dead fish found at the site of the palm oil spill. Photo: Robert Lockyer

Deputy Director of Environmental Protection Elvis Au said on a RTHK programme that his department had worked with four other departments.

Au denied the notification from the mainland authorities was late, since Guangdong authorities deployed emergency plans last Thursday to clean the spill, and informed Hong Kong of the type of the spill.

Au said the cargo vessel transported 9,000 tons of palm oil, but he was uncertain how much had leaked.

Ken Ching of the Eco-Education & Resources Centre said there will be dozens of volunteers working every day to clean up beaches not managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department on Lamma Island.

“Even if we have ten times the people, it is not likely that the spill will be cleaned up this week,” he said.

Lamma Island. Photo: Robert Lockyer.

Ching said sea currents keep pushing the oil into Hong Kong waters, despite clean-up efforts.

He also said the temperature of the sand was high and some of the oil was melting, making it difficult to clean.

“Imagine you are walking on lard – it is easy to slip,” he said.

Ching praised the government for being more active in organising clean-ups, compared to a plastic pellet spill that happened in 2012.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.