HONG KONG — Hundreds of millions of potentially toxic plastic pellets from containers knocked off a vessel during Hong Kong’s worst typhoon in 13 years have washed up on its beaches where they lay for more than a week, activists said yesterday. The Hong Kong government estimated that 150 tonnes of the pellets may have been spilled on its beaches, of which a third have been cleaned up so far.
Local media questioned the government’s lack of public notice about the spill, almost two weeks after Typhoon Vincente which was upgraded to Signal 10. It was the first time since 1999 that the city’s meteorological body had invoked its highest measure.
In response, the government said its marine and environmental protection departments responded immediately after receiving public complaints on July 24 and 26 respectively. Both departments are working with the ship owner to clean up the spill, they said in a joint e-mail reply. The Environmental Protection Department said water quality had not been affected.
Gary Stokes, a representative for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international marine life conservation non-profit and another stakeholder in the clean-up operation, said the government had been forthcoming with its assistance. China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec), manufacturers of the pellets, said the pellets were not toxic or hazardous on their own.
But while the pellets are harmless in their original state, they absorb toxins and pollutants over time and could poison the food chain when marine creatures consume them. Also known as nurdles or mermaid tears, the tiny pellets are widely used to make plastic products. “It looked like it snowed in east Lamma,” said Sea Shepherd’s Stokes, referring to the beaches on the eastern coast of Lamma island, just south of the main Hong Kong island and around which remnants of three 40 foot containers holding thousands of 25 kg bags of the white-coloured pellets were found scattered.
Recently, the worst pollution in two years smothered Hong Kong for a second day, prompting warnings to the old and sick to stay indoors and obscuring one of the world’s most famous views. Pollution readings were “very high” in business and shopping districts such as Central, Western, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, air monitoring stations showed, surpassed only once in March 2010 when a sandstorm in northern China covered Hong Kong in dust.
“Bad air is trapped here. But even though external circumstances can’t blow away the pollutants, the problem still lies fundamentally in vehicular emissions in Hong Kong itself,” said Patrick Fung of Clean Air Network, a local pro-environment group. The view of the cramped skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and the Peak was obscured from across the harbour in Kowloon.
Air pollution in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a major source of worry for local citizens and foreign businesses, which increasingly see it as compromising the quality of life. — Agencies