Provisional Legislative Council
PLC Paper No. CB(2) 961
(These minutes have been
seen by the Administration)
Ref : CB2/PL/HS
Provisional Legislative Council
Panel on Health Services
Minutes of Special meeting held on Wednesday, 17 December 1997 at 8:30 am in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Building
Members present :
Dr Hon TANG Siu-tong, JP (Chairman)
Hon WONG Siu-yee
Hon Henry WU
Hon Howard YOUNG, JP
Members absent :
Dr Hon LEONG Che-hung, JP (Deputy Chairman)
Hon CHEUNG Hon-chung
Hon MOK Ying-fan
Hon CHAN Yuen-han
Members attending :
Hon David CHU Yu-lin
Dr Hon Raymond HO Chung-tai, JP
Hon LEE Kai-ming
Hon Mrs Selina CHOW, JP
Dr Hon Mrs TSO WONG Man-yin
Hon CHAN Wing-chan
Hon IP Kwok-him
Hon LAU Kong-wah
Hon Mrs Miriam LAU, JP
Hon Ambrose LAU Hon-chuen, JP
Public officers attending :
- Mr Alex FONG
- Deputy Secretary for Security
- Mrs Sarah KWOK
- Principal Assistant Secretary for Security
- Miss Maureen WONG
- Principal Assistant Secretary for Transport
- Mr TSANG Kwong-yu
- Deputy Director of Fire Services
- Fire Services Department
- Mr HSU King-ping
- Chief Fire Officer (Protection)
- Fire Services Department
- Mr Sam W H WONG
- Principal Environmental Protection Officer
- Environmental Protection Department
- Mr TSUI Shu-ki
- Senior Chemist
- Government Laboratory
- Mr LAI Ching-wai
- Senior Country Parks Officer (Management)
- Agriculture and Fisheries Department
- Dr Raymond L M LEUNG
- Principal Medical & Health Officer
- Department of Health
- Mr CHEUNG Tze-leung
- Chief Chemist
- Water Supplies Department
- Mr Peter Y K LUK
- Assistant Commissioner for Transport/Management & Licensing
- Transport Department
Clerk in attendance:
- Mrs Sharon TONG
- Chief Assistant Secretary (2) 1
Staff in attendance :
- Mr Stanley MA
- Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 7
- Mr Paul WOO
- Senior Assistant Secretary (2) 5
This meeting was originally convened for the PLC Panel on Security, Panel on Health Services, Panel on Transport and Panel on Environmental Affairs to jointly discuss the recent cyanide spill incident which occurred in Tai Po Road near Kam Shan Country Park at 1:26 pm on 4 December 1997 and remedial control measures on the transport of dangerous goods and toxic chemicals. According to House Rule 22(n), the attendance of at least 13 members was required to form a quorum. In the absence of a quorum for the joint meeting at 8:45 a.m., members present agreed that the meeting be held as a special meeting of the Panel on Health Services. Dr TANG Siu-tong, Chairman of the Panel on Health Services took the chair.
I.Briefing by the Administration on the recent cyanide spill incident and control on the transport of dangerous goods and toxic chemical
2. At the request of the Chairman, Deputy Secretary for Security (DSS) briefed members on the recent cyanide spill incident and control on the transport of dangerous goods and toxic chemicals. He highlighted that the emergency departments had responded to the incident promptly on receipt of information about the spillage on 4 December 1997 and took effective action to remove the spilled substance and to contain its spread on the same day. He confirmed that the laboratory test results of air, soil and water samples collected by the responsible Departments in the vicinity of the incident were well within safety limits and the environment around the vicinity of the incident should be free from contamination. In respect of the three major areas of concern, namely, the impact of the incident on the environment and public health, the adequacy of emergency management responses to the incident and the follow-up measures to prevent recurrence of similar incidents in the future, DSS requested representatives of the Departments to elaborate on the actions taken.
Impact of the incident on the environment and public health
3. Chief Chemist of the Water Supplies Department (CC/WSD) highlighted that the 52 samples of water taken during 4 to 12 December 1997 from various spots of the Kowloon Reservoir were found to contain less than 0.01 mg of cyanide per litre, a level which was similar to routine monitoring levels recorded before the incident, indicating that the reservoir had not been contaminated. He added that according to the World Health Organization, the health of an average person would not be significantly at risk after a lifetime consumption of 70 years through drinking daily two litres of water having a cyanide concentration of 0.07 mg per litre. He reckoned that in the worst imaginable scenario where the total 200 kg of cyanide contained in the four metal drums were completely dissolved in the Kowloon Reservoir, an event which did not take place, the calculated concentration of cyanide in a litre of the reservoir water would be 0.07 mg, which was the same as the World Health Organization level for lifetime consumption. He also pointed out that the existing water treatment works in Hong Kong were capable of removing such level of cyanide in the treatment process before the water was piped to consumers.
4. As far as the contents of air was concerned, Senior Chemist of the Government Laboratory (GL) said that responsible staff of GL had stationed on site to keep surveillance on the air qualities in the vicinity of the incident until 4:00 am on 5 December 1997. During the period more than 50 air samples were taken around the vicinity and analyzed. These samples were all found to have contained less than one ppm of hydrogen cyanide gas which was far below the standard agreed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, i.e., not more than 10 ppm for working environment in which persons worked continuously for eight hours on a five-day week roster. He added that another 26 air samples were taken between 5 to 9 December 1997 and the test results supported the conclusion that the proportion of hydrogen cyanide gas in the vicinity had remained stable and within safety limit.
5. Senior Country Parks Officer (Management) of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) said that AFD had been vigilant towards any changes of the environment around the vicinity of the incident. He confirmed that so far no observable changes in the living of wild animals and growth of plants had been recorded. It was very likely that the environment in the proximity would remain intact in the years to come.
6. Principal Medical and Health Officer of the Department of Health pointed out that absorption of cyanide in human body could be through oral intake and inhalation. In the case of oral intake, the fatal dose for sodium cyanide was 200-250 mg and in the case of inhalation, the fatal dose for hydrogen cyanide gas was 150-200 ppm.
7. Principal Environmental Protection Officer of the Environmental Protection Department (PEPO/EPD) said that EPD had assisted in arranging the chemical waste vehicles to collect the scattered sodium cyanide. The Fire Services Department (FSD) had also assisted in removing the spilled sodium cyanide for disposal, neutralizing the traces of minute particles left by applying bleaching agent and washing them away with copious amount of water, and removing vegetation and soil suspected of having been contaminated. He stressed that after the decontamination operation, the original conditions of the environment around the vicinity of the incident have been restored.
Emergency response management
8. Deputy Director of Fire Services (DD/FS) of the Fire Services Department said that on receipt of information about the spillage of dangerous goods on 4 December 1997, FSD had taken immediate actions to cordon off the affected area and coordinate the efforts of the Departments concerned to remove the spilled substance and to contain its spread. He thanked the Drainage Services Department for advising on the proper washing away of neutralized residue of spilled sodium cyanide to appropriate drainage in the vicinity. He also emphasized that FSD had ended the decontamination operation on 7 December 1997 after the quality of the air, water and soil samples collected in the vicinity of the accident had all been tested and confirmed to be within safety limit.
Legislative control on dangerous goods
9. DSS briefed members that legislative control on dangerous goods were enforced by way of the provisions in two existing Ordinances. The Dangerous Goods (Application and Exemption) Regulations and the Dangerous Goods (General) Regulations under the Dangerous Goods Ordinance (Cap.295) (the Ordinance) contained provisions on the manufacture, conveyance, storage, packing, use, etc, of specified categories of dangerous goods. The Road Traffic (Traffic Control) Regulations (Cap.374G) incorporated provisions governing the safe loading of goods on vehicles in general. The Administration had on a continuous basis reviewed these Regulations with the aim of ensuring that local legislative control on dangerous goods were in line with internationally accepted standards. As a result, 35 amendments had been made to update provisions in these Regulations in respect of new storage requirements, new explosives, etc. He added that the review started in 1988 had identified that there were variations between the two international standards, i.e., the United Nations System and the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. In 1995 the Dangerous Goods Standing Committee (the Standing Committee) started a comprehensive review of the Ordinance and aimed to complete the exercise in mid-1998. In response to the Chairman's follow-up question, DD/FS supplemented that the Standing Committee was now updating and refining the provisions in the Ordinance to cover goods which were classified as dangerous in overseas countries but not in Hong Kong. On the aspects of labelling, packing, conveyance, storage, exemption quantities, etc of different categories of dangerous goods, the relevant practices and procedures adopted by the two international standards would be considered in the context of the Hong Kong environment.
Follow-up measures to prevent recurrence of similar incidents
10. In the light of the cyanide incident, DSS acknowledged that the community was most concerned about the safe handling and conveyance of dangerous goods on the roads. He pointed out that there were provisions in the Dangerous Goods Ordinance and the Dangerous Goods (General) Regulations governing the conveyance and transportation of Categories 1, 2 and 5 dangerous goods, namely, explosives, compressed gases and substances giving off inflammable vapour. The conveyance and transportation of Category 4 dangerous goods (poisonous substances which included sodium cyanide) did not require the licensing of vehicles under the existing Ordinance. However, there were provisions in the Road Traffic (Traffic Control) Regulations (Cap.374G) governing the safe loading and mounting of goods on vehicles in general. DSS described a number of alternatives which could be considered for adoption to enhance the safe handling and transportation of poisonous substances on the road and stressed that the Administration was now reviewing the need to tighten the control on transportation of dangerous goods including poisonous substances, taking into consideration of the prevailing international practices. In order to complete the review promptly, FSD was considering the need to employ an independent consultant specialized in the field to conduct a comprehensive review. As a matter of priority, the appointed consultant would be required to provide an interim report in mid-1998 on recommendations relating to the control on the conveyance of Category 4 dangerous goods.
II.Members enquiries and suggestions on follow-up measures
11. Mr IP Kwok-him expressed reservations about the need to appoint a consultant for the comprehensive review and questioned the adequacy of existing regulations governing the conveyance and transportation of Category 4 dangerous substances. Referring to the remaining sodium cyanide found by a university professor on 5 December 1997 and the involved driver's indifference to the seriousness of the incident, he asked what follow-up measures were being considered for protection of innocent third parties who happened to be in close proximity of similar incidents in the future. DSS agreed that in addition to a comprehensive set of legislative regulations, the concerned driver's attitude towards the safe loading and mounting of the dangerous goods on vehicles was also important for prevention of recurrence of similar incidents in the future. In this connection, he reiterated that a comprehensive review on the Ordinance which would cover all issues having an effect on public safety was essential. Assistant Commissioner for Transport/Management and Licensing supplemented that companies and drivers of the transportation industry were required to load and mount goods on vehicles in accordance with the provisions of the Road Traffic (Traffic Control) Regulations (Cap 374G). In accordance with these regulations, the Transport Department had published a code of practice containing detailed guidelines and instructions on the loading and mounting of goods on vehicles as well as a summary leaflet for the easy reference of vehicle drivers. In addition, the Transport Department also arranged quarterly meetings with goods vehicle drivers to discuss matters relating to the safe handling and conveyance of goods in general. In reply to Mr IP's follow-up question on whether the Administration would consider requiring drivers of vehicles carrying Category 4 dangerous goods to hold a qualifying licence, DD/FS pointed out that drivers of licensed dangerous goods vehicles for transportation of Category 2 and 5 dangerous goods were required to attend skills and knowledge training arranged by FSD. He opined that such arrangement might be considered for drivers involved in transportation of Category 4 dangerous goods as well. As regards Mr IP's query about the sodium cyanide left on site after the decontamination operation, DSS described the series of actions taken before re-opening the site and assured members that the Administration would, in its review of the incident, re-examine the related procedures with particular attention . Mrs CHOW LIANG Shuk-yee said that members would follow up the findings and recommendations of the Administration's review in due course.
12. Mrs CHOW opposed the suggestion to engage external consultant to conduct the comprehensive review. She said that the Administration should have sufficient qualified manpower to conduct the review. She enquired whether the vehicle owner and driver in question had violated any requirements under the "general provisions relating to packing, conveyance and storage of poisonous substances (section 92 of the Dangerous Goods (General) Provisions)" and how such legal requirements were being enforced. DD/FS clarified that FSD was responsible for the enforcement of the provisions in Dangerous Goods (General) Regulations for Categories 2 to 10 dangerous goods. He said that the four drums of sodium cyanide in question had not been labelled in accordance with legal requirement and for this reason the driver concerned would be prosecuted. Responding to the Chairman's follow-up question, DD/FS said that for Categories 2 and 5 dangerous goods, FSD carried out surprise inspections to licensed vehicles on the road occasionally and would take legal action against the licensee of the vehicle for any breach of the licensing conditions. For Categories 3, 4 and 6 to 10 dangerous goods, there was no provision in the Regulations empowering FSD to conduct surprise inspections to vehicles transporting these goods on the road. In response to Mrs CHOW's further enquiry, DD/FS explained that the requirement of a licensed vehicle to transport Categories 2 and 5 dangerous goods was compulsory because these dangerous goods were highly inflammable gases which could be ignited by a spark caused by the battery or static electricity as well as by the hot gas emitted from the exhaust-pipe of an ordinary vehicle. In view of wide public concern on potential hazards to environment and public health which could be caused by similar incidents, he agreed to review the need for legislative measures to regulate the conveyance of Category 4 dangerous goods, e.g. the imposition of licensing requirements for vehicles transporting these goods. At Mrs CHOW's request, FSD agreed to provide statistics on the administration and enforcement of the provisions in the Ordinance.
13. Noting that the Administration had not posted any warning notices in the vicinity of the accident before the re-opening of the site on 5 December 1997, Mrs TSO WONG Man-yin opined that this reflected the Administration's lack of sufficient experience in crisis management. Whilst the overall review of the Ordinance was in progress, she urged the Administration to work out temporary measures for prevention of recurrence of similar incidents. DSS replied that following the incident, FSD had discussed with the Standing Committee and, in collaboration with the Transport Department, would advise representatives of related companies and transportation associations to follow up on some temporary measures for vehicle drivers. He added that since temporary measures of an advisory nature did not carry a legal effect, the long-term solution might have to be the introduction of appropriate amendments to the existing legislation to impose additional requirements on both the dangerous goods vehicle companies and drivers of vehicles transporting dangerous goods. DD/FS supplemented that FSD had regular meetings with representatives of related companies and driver associations and would through these meetings request their assistance to convey to their employees and members the importance of following safety guidelines and measures in handling and conveyance of dangerous goods. In addition, FSD would consider to prepare an item checklist for vehicle drivers easy reference.
14. Noting that any traffic accidents occurred during the transportation of poisonous substances on the road could cause serious hazards to the environment and public health, Mr HO Chung-tai queried that the Administration had made no attempt to add provisions in the Ordinance to enhance safe transportation of poisonous substances on the road. He opined that after so many years of review, control measures such as the requirement of licensed vehicles for transportation of poisonous substances and of vehicle drivers to hold a licence and to attend regular refreshing courses on basic knowledge in handling and driving skills should have been thoroughly considered. DD/FS responded that requiring all drivers to possess a licence for such purpose was a complex issue which had to be carefully studied. He added that the existing legislative control on exemption quantity, packing, labelling and transportation of poisonous substances were in line with international standards. DSS supplemented that as the prime objective now was to prevent recurrence of similar incidents, the Administration would consider all workable options including the requirement of licensed vehicles with special installations to ensure the safe transportation of poisonous substances. Since a wide variety of poisonous substances were being used in a range of industries in Hong Kong, the impact of each proposed option on the economy and the feedback from the trade affected should also be considered. Mr HO was not convinced by the Administration's responses and urged the Administration to follow up on preventive measures urgently.
15. Mr CHU Yu-lin said that he was satisfied with the crisis response management of the Departments concerned except that the Administration appeared to have underestimated the possible tragedies which could be resulted from similar incidents. He pointed out that should the incident happened at another place or time where it was windy and raining or crowds of people were around the vicinity, the consequence could be fatally serious. He added that despite legal action was in progress, the driver concerned was still driving the vehicle for transportation of poisonous substances on the road. He suggested the Administration to issue urgent administrative instructions for implementation of some remedial measures to prevent recurrence of similar incidents. DSS reiterated that in the light of the incident the Administration would review the need for strengthening legislative control relating to transportation of poisonous goods with the aim of proposing long-term remedial measures which would be cost-effective and acceptable to the trade concerned. On the short run, the Administration would continue to advise the trade concerned to follow the legislative requirements and code of practice, and would highlight that legal action would be instituted against those who failed to act in accordance with legal requirements. Responding to the Chairman's follow-up enquiry, Principal Assistant Secretary for Transport supplemented that Part VIII of the Road Traffic (Traffic Control) Regulations (Cap. 374G) contained provisions on loading of vehicles. The Police could take prosecution action against drivers of vehicles who failed to comply with the regulations. The Police also paid special attention to major roads used by goods vehicles and vehicles suspected of having insecure loads may be directed to Police inspection points for inspection. Any person who contravened the requirements committed an offence and would be issued with fixed penalty tickets or summons. The maximum penalty on first conviction was a fine of $5,000 and imprisonment of 3 months and on second or subsequent conviction a fine of $10,000 and imprisonment for 6 months. Mr CHU commented that these were general provisions on security of loads which were not specially provided for effective control and surveillance on vehicles transporting poisonous substances on the road. He suggested the Administration to consider requiring such vehicles to be posted with appropriate eye-catching labels to enhance the Police's inspection work as well as to alert other people and drivers who happened to be in close proximity to these vehicles.
16. Mr LAU Kong-wah commented that the Administration appeared to have underestimated the community's concern about the potential threats arising from transportation of sodium cyanide and substances alike on the road. He also urged the Administration to propose appropriate amendments to relevant legislative regulations to effect the implementation of remedial measures as soon as possible. DSS reiterated that the Administration was considering the issue with a priority and would propose remedial measures as soon as practicable. He stressed that the proposed remedial measures on conveyance of poisonous substances should be comprehensive, cost-effective and could be followed without difficulty by those who were affected.
17. Referring to CC/WSD's postulation that the water in Kowloon Reservoir after dissolution of 200 kg of sodium cyanide would still be safe for consumption even without treatment, Mr Henry WU pointed out that the complete dissolution of 200 kg of sodium cyanide into a volume of 1 578 million litres of water was a long process during which time substantial impacts on ecological environment in the vicinity would have occurred. He added that had the incident happened at another time or place where the weather conditions were favourable for the spread of the spilled sodium cyanide, the impacts on the environment and public health could be devastating. Referring to some newspaper reports, he also enquired about the co-ordination of departmental efforts for the delivery of bleaching powder to site and requested the Administration to provide further details on the schedule of the decontamination operation.. CC/WSD reiterated that up to now all the samples taken after the incident had been found to contain less than 0.01 mg of cyanide per litre and therefore indicated that the reservoir had not been contaminated. Furthermore, he added that the Kowloon Reservoir had been closed since at least early October 1997 and the water there could also be isolated in any situation. The water supply to the public had never been at risk during the whole incident. DD/FS supplemented that FSD could provide the Panel with a computer record of incident occurrence to illustrate the sequence of events relating to the co-ordination of departmental efforts on the delivery of the bleaching agents for neutralizing the minute particles left as a result of the spilled sodium cyanide.
18. While agreeing that sufficient time should be allowed for the Administration to amend the related Ordinances, Mrs Miriam LAU suggested that the Transport Department should first amend the code of practice for drivers with respect to related guidelines and instructions on the transportation of dangerous goods and through the co-operation of the trade concerned, ensure the distribution of an updated information sheet or checklist to vehicle drivers each time before they were assigned to transport dangerous goods. She also enquired about the wording and symbols which should be printed on the labels for different dangerous goods. In response, DD/FS described and illustrated the required wordings and symbols for labelling the packages of poisonous substances. He added that FSD was refining the presentation of the provisions and tables under different categories of dangerous goods to facilitate quick and easy reference.
19. Responding to Mr LAU Kong-wah's follow-up enquiry, DSS reiterated that with the appointment of an external consultant, the review was expected to be completed in mid-1998 and without it, a longer time would be required. He assured members that short-term measures which did not require legislative changes such as amending the code of practice for vehicle drivers could be implemented in advance of the longer term solutions.
20. Mr LAU Hon-chuen enquired about whether the Administration had a set of comprehensive emergency procedures corresponding to different scenarios arising as a result of an accident in the transport of dangerous goods on the road. DSS confirmed that emergency procedures for both large and small scale operations were in place to cater for different emergency situations. DD/FS supplemented that apart from the guidelines provided by the Security Bureau, FSD had its own set of procedures for a wide variety of emergency situations. These procedures were stored in the computer system and in case of an emergency, the duty officer at FSD's Communication Centre could readily retrieve the relevant procedure from the computer system and thereby follow the procedure to co-ordinate with the responsible departmental officers in-charge of the case on site for appropriate follow-up actions. DSS supplemented that along with the on-going review and updating of emergency procedures, the Administration had organized regular trials under artificial settings for Departments concerned to jointly practise the necessary emergency response and operation under different situations.
21. In response to the Chairman's enquiry, DD/FS said that FSD had responded to the incident and carried out the necessary procedures with adequate manpower for the decontamination operation. He explained that in deciding to re-open the site, FSD had inspected the site thoroughly and had been confirmed by Departments concerned that the test results of all water, air and soil samples taken in the vicinity of the accident were well within safety limits.
22. Members commented that the Administration should improve on its crisis response management. DSS thanked members for their valuable comments and undertook to carry out a review on emergency response management to see what improvements could be made.
23. The meeting ended at 10:30 am.
Provisional Legislative Council Secretariat
5 February 1998