Crash at sea leaves beaches covered in congealed palm oil

A cleaner rakes palm oil residue from the sand on a beach in Hong Kong, Aug. 7, 2017.

Getty

HONG KONG -- Cleanup efforts are under way in Hong Kong after white blobs of congealed palm oil washed up on the city's shores following a collision between two ships.

Authorities have closed more than a dozen beaches, including two on Tuesday, since the spill was reported over the weekend, though the government says the substance isn't dangerous.

Marine officials say the ships collided in the Pearl River Delta estuary southwest of Hong Kong on Thursday, but Hong Kong authorities were not notified by their counterparts in mainland China until two days later.

The congealed palm oil resembles clumps of snow or pieces of Styrofoam and has a consistency similar to Play-Doh. It has been spotted blanketing Hong Kong beaches and floating in the water.

hong-kong-palm-oil-827114452.jpg

A plastic toy rake is seen amongst clumps of palm oil after it washed up onto a beach in Hong Kong, Aug. 7, 2017.

Getty

Cleanup crews had collected more than 50 metric tons of the stuff by Monday, the government said. It has deployed helicopters and nine ships to help find and collect the waste while workers at public beaches are using absorbent blankets and strips to contain the mess.

Palm oil is commonly used in food products and cosmetics. Environment Undersecretary Tse Chin-wan told reporters that it's non-toxic and there has been no sign of widespread impact on marine life. Tse said that no more than 1,000 metric tons leaked from the stricken ship.

Environmentalists worry about the harm the substance could pose to Hong Kong's already polluted waters, and to fish and other animals that eat large amounts of it.

Hong Kong is made up of a peninsula attached to mainland China's southern coast as well as about 260 islands, many of them small and uninhabited.