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April, 2016:

Waste Management Needs Commitment and Leadership

Letter to Hong Kong – Waste Management Needs Commitment and Leadership – Albert W. Y. Chan, April 30, 2016

My previous letters to Hong Kong were mainly focused on Hong Kong’s public governance and democratic development. One thing that I have mentioned quite frequently in LegCo but not in other public domains is environmental policy.

In the past twenty years, I have advocated compulsory separation of waste for Hong Kong. But unfortunately, all of these demands have fallen on deaf ears. As we all understand, political development and economic policies have to rely on the central government’s support, but for environmental policy, the Hong Kong SAR Government can determine by its own.

If you look back on the government’s environmental policies, there were very little changes in the past 18 years. The lack of initiatives in waste management indicates the government’s lack of will in governing our society and improving the livelihood of our people.

The Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, in his election manifesto, pledged to re-examine our environmental protection policy from the perspective of sustainable development, and promised to take effective measures to provide a high quality living environment. He also indicated that he would build Hong Kong into a modern livable city. It seems that his manifesto is pure rhetoric and without much substance. If the government is sincere in improving and protecting our environment, one basic thing that they should do is to formulate a policy that will separate our waste at source.

Waste separation is an initial step in protecting the environment. If we look around the world, many cities already have established compulsory waste separation policies for decades. In most developed countries, many of them separate the waste at source. Many of them have an extremely high percentage on waste recycling, some even up to 80-90%. Hong Kong’s situation is totally undesirable. Hong Kong generated a total of 5.56 million tonnes of waste in 2012, in which only 2.16 tonnes were recyclable, and the other 3.4 million tonnes were disposed of at landfills. Our recycling rate is less than 40%.

For leadership and dedication in environment protection, we don’t have to look far for a good example. Taipei is a city, in terms of history, population, and economic development, is similar to Hong Kong, but they are far more ahead in their environmental policy.

The Taipei government started the waste separation experiment in the 90’s and formally implemented the Garbage Sorting, Recycling, and Reduction Action Plan in 2003.

The Action Plan required all residents to separate garbage into three categories: recyclable waste, kitchen waste and general household waste. After the implementation of the above policy, Taipei City’s per capita disposal rate of household garbage fell nearly 50% from 0.6 kg in 2003 to 0.39 kg in 2011. If compared to Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s per capita disposal rate of household garbage is 0.84 in 2011, which is double of Taipei.

If Taipei can be successful in solid waste management, I believe that Hong Kong people can do the same. The problem is our government.

As for the Hong Kong Government’s record, we should be ashamed of ourselves. One of the problem is the usage of plastic bags themselves. We do remember that the government encouraged people not to use plastic bags in shopping, and created a new tax for 50 cents for each plastic bag. However, the government uses plenty of plastic bags themselves. For example, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department “AFCD”, used more than 180,000 plastic bags last year, and additional 350,000 plastic bags consumed by AFCD’s contractors in the same year. The numbers add up to over 1,400 plastic bags per day.

It should be noted that this is only one department. I believe that the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department should use much more plastic bags than AFCD. The Hong Kong SAR Government is definitely the world leader in using plastic bags.

At the time when the Hong Kong Government contaminates our environment with millions of plastic bags, the European Commissioner for Environment is advocating Zero Plastic Waste policy. Many developed cities have also established zero plastic bags policy. For example, plastic bags will be banned from all shops in Paris from 1st July 2016.

One recent development in environmental policy is “Zero Waste” policy. “Zero Waste” is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. If we can achieve “Zero Waste”, we don’t need any landfills and incinerators, because all the waste can be recycled and reused. By doing that, we have to change our way of life and the government have to design a system and mechanism that will collect and recycle all of our waste.

Although “Zero Waste” is a very difficult task, San Francisco has set a target for zero waste in 2020, and a target for 75% of recycling of solid waste in 2010. The difference between Hong Kong and San Francisco is leadership and commitment.

In the 2015 America Recycles Day, Obama, the President of United States said: “Communities across America must continue promoting activities that encourage people to recycle and to conserve, so we do not take for granted today the world our children will inherit tomorrow.”. He continued to say: “Let us work to fulfill our obligation to our next generation by safeguarding our resources and working with our friends, family, and neighbors to protect the world we share.” Perhaps our political leaders in Hong Kong should have the same belief and commitment, then we may have a better living environment, and a better future.


WASHINGTON (AP) — An oil and natural gas field in the western United States is largely responsible for a global uptick of the air pollutant ethane, according to a new study.

The team led by researchers at the University of Michigan found that fossil fuel production at the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana is emitting roughly 2 percent of the ethane detected in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Along with its chemical cousin methane, ethane is a hydrocarbon that is a significant component of natural gas. Once in the atmosphere, ethane reacts with sunlight to form ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, especially in children and the elderly. Ethane pollution can also harm agricultural crops.

Ozone also ranks as the third-largest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide and methane.

“We didn’t expect one region to have such a global influence,” said Eric Kort, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of climatic science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The study was launched after a mountaintop sensor in the European Alps began registering surprising spikes in ethane concentrations in the atmosphere starting in 2010, following decades of declines. The increase, which has continued over the last five years, was noted at the same time new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques were fueling a boom of oil and gas production from previously inaccessible shale rock formations in the United States.

Searching for the source of the ethane, an aircraft from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2014 sampled air from directly overhead and downwind of drilling rigs in the Bakken region. Those measurements showed ethane emissions far higher than what was being reported to the government by oil and gas companies.

The findings solve an atmospheric mystery – where that extra ethane was coming from, said Colm Sweeney, a study co-author from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The researchers said other U.S. oil and gas fields, especially the Eagle Ford in Texas, are also likely contributing to the global rise in ethane concentrations. Ethane gets into the air through leaks from drilling rigs, gas storage facilities and pipelines, as well as from intentional venting and gas burnoffs from extraction operations.

“We need to take these regions into account because it could really be impacting air quality in a way that might matter across North America,” Kort said.

Helping drive the high emission levels from the Bakken has been the oil field’s meteoric growth. Efforts to install and maintain equipment to capture ethane and other volatile gases before they can escape have lagged behind drilling, said North Dakota Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt.

Glatt’s agency has stepped up enforcement efforts in response. Last year, the state purchased a specialized camera that can detect so-called fugitive gas emissions as they escape from uncontained oil storage tanks, leaky pipelines, processing facilities and other sources.

“You’re able to see what the naked eye can’t and it reveals emissions sources you didn’t know where there,” Glatt said. “It’s a game changer. A lot of the companies thought they were in good shape, and they looked through the camera and saw they weren’t.”

Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency were reviewing the study’s results. Spokeswoman Laura Allen said Friday that new clean air rules recently announced by the Obama administration to curb climate-warming methane leaks from oil and gas drilling operations should also help address the harmful ethane emissions.

There are other ways ethane gets into the atmosphere – including wildfires and natural seepage from underground gas reserves. But fossil fuel extraction is the dominant source, accounting for roughly 60 to 70 percent of global emissions, according to a 2013 study from researchers at the University of California.

Exposure to Particulate Air Pollutants Associated With Numerous Types of Cancer

Long-term exposure to ambient fine particulate matter, a mixture of environmental pollutants, was associated with increased risk of mortality for many types of cancer in an elderly Hong Kong population, according to a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

“Long-term exposure to particulate matter has been associated with mortality mainly from cardiopulmonary causes and lung cancer, but there have been few studies showing an association with mortality from other cancers,” said the study’s co-lead author, Thuan Quoc Thach, PhD, a scientific officer at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. “Co-lead author Neil Thomas and I suspected that these particulates could have an equivalent effect on cancers elsewhere in the body.” Thomas, MPhil, PhD, is a reader in epidemiology in the Department of Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Institute of Applied Health of the College of Medical and Dental Sciences at The University of Birmingham.

Particulate matter is the term for particles found in the air, including hydrocarbons and heavy metals produced by transportation and power generation, among other sources, Thach explained. This study focused on ambient fine particulate matter, or matter with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5).

For this study, Thach, Thomas, and colleagues enrolled 66,280 people who were age 65 or older when initially recruited between 1998 and 2001. The researchers did not have data on whether they had cancer before they were enrolled. Researchers followed the study subjects until 2011, ascertaining causes of death from Hong Kong registrations. Annual concentrations of PM2.5 at their homes were estimated using data from satellite data and fixed-site monitors.

After adjusting for smoking status and excluding deaths that had occurred within three years of the baseline to control for competing diseases, the study showed that for every 10 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3) of increased exposure to PM2.5, the risk of dying from any cancer rose by 22 percent. Increases of 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 were associated with a 42 percent increased risk of mortality from cancer in the upper digestive tract and a 35 percent increased risk of mortality from accessory digestive organs, which include the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and pancreas.

For women, every 10 µg/m3 increase in exposure to PM2.5 was associated with an 80 percent increased risk of mortality from breast cancer, and men experienced a 36 percent increased risk of dying of lung cancer for every 10 µg/m3 increased exposure to PM2.5.

Thach and Thomas indicated possible explanations for the association between PM2.5 and cancer could include defects in DNA repair function, alterations in the body’s immune response, or inflammation that triggers angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels that allows tumors to spread. In the case of the digestive organs, heavy metal pollution could affect gut microbiota and influence the development of cancer, the authors added.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a series of monographs on the evaluation of various carcinogenic risks. In a monograph on air pollution, the organization pointed out the difficulty of assessing the effects of pollution on multiple types of cancers, given their different etiologies, risk factors, and variability in the composition of air pollutants in space and time. The IARC also identified certain key components of air pollution, including particulates. The large scale of Thach and Thomas’s study, as well as its documentation of cancer-specific mortality, enables the detailed investigation of the contribution of particulate matter to these cancers, the authors said.

Thomas added that further research would be required to determine whether other countries experience similar associations between PM2.5 and cancer deaths, but this study combined with existing research suggests that other urban populations may carry the same risks.

“The implications for other similar cities around the world are that PM2.5 must be reduced as much and as fast as possible,” he said. “Air pollution remains a clear, modifiable public health concern.”

Thach said a limitation of the study is that it focused solely on PM2.5. He said emerging research is beginning to study the effects of exposure to multiple pollutants on human health. He also cautioned that pollution is just one risk factor for cancer, and others, such as diet and exercise, may be more significant and more modifiable risk factors.

This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust. Thach and Thomas declare no conflicts of interest.

‘Draconian’: Human rights groups slams China’s new controversial NGO law

Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch have criticised China’s new law governing foreign non-government organizations (NGOs). The law, passed Thursday, imposes a series of new regulations and gives authorities expanded powers that activists say threaten the existence of foreign NGOs and civil society in China.

The US-based Human Rights Watch called the law “draconian” and another tool to “legalise China’s human rights abuses.”

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organisations remain at risk.”

The new law is set to take effect on January 1, 2017 and will require all foreign NGOs to be sponsored by a Chinese government organisation. The law also requires the NGOs to register with the police and Ministry of Public Security, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as they have in the past.

Another US-based NGO, Human Rights in China, stated that the new law has “the potential to undermine the role and contributions that foreign organisations make toward China’s growing civil society.”

“The international community needs to avoid getting suckered into China’s divide-and-conquer strategy and must reject the clearly politicised distinction between the ‘harmful’ and beneficial’, especially when ‘beneficial’ really means beneficial to Party control,” added Human Rights in China executive director Sharon Hom.

“Ultimately no group will be deemed welcome unless it is willing to work within a constricted civil society space that is securely monitored and controlled by the authorities.”

Deeply concerned at passage of new NGO law in #China. Act limits space for civil society; puts legitimate work of independent NGOs at risk.

UK air pollution is a public health emergency

According to a cross-party committee of Members of Parliament, air pollution in the UK is a “public health emergency” – the government’s own data shows air pollution causes 40,000–50,000 early deaths a year. The MPs’ heavily critical report says more action is required to tackle the crisis, such as giving dozens of cities that currently suffer illegal levels of air pollution stronger powers to deter polluting vehicles through charges.

The MPs’ report also says farmers must step up action to cut pollution. Ammonia emissions from farms contribute to the formation of tiny particles, one of the main causes of premature deaths and other health impacts.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer at ClientEarth, which defeated the government in the supreme court in 2015, said: “We’ve been telling the government it needs to act on air pollution for five years. Due to our legal case, the government was ordered to act. Now, almost a year on, a cross-party group of MPs has told the government it must get a grip.

It seems there is near-unanimous agreement on the need for urgent action from everyone other than the ministers responsible for dealing with our toxic air.”

Source: The Guardian, 27 April 2016

The report:

China trash incinerator project called off after protest

Authorities in eastern China with more sense than Hong Kong’s lying ‘landfills are full’ ENB fools have halted plans to build a trash incinerator after rowdy street protests by residents and the arrests of two women.

The Haiyan county government in Zhejiang province said in a statement Friday that hundreds of residents began to gather illegally Wednesday and blocked roads. The demonstration escalated on Thursday evening when the mob attacked a local government building, smashing objects and causing injuries to police officer and bystanders, it said.

A 19-year-old woman was detained on charges of spreading unverified gory pictures and videos on the Internet, which were viewed more than 5,000 times. Another woman was charged with spreading insults against local officials, the government said.

The Haiyan government first revealed plans for the project on April 12, saying it was needed to help dispose of the 450 tons of solid waste that residents are generating every day.

No reason was given for the cancellation.

Recent years have seen a growing number of protests against incinerators, chemical plants and other projects believed to threaten the environment and living conditions.

Those have generally been permitted despite the ruling Communist Party’s pervasive crackdown on independent organizers and political critics, although arrests often follow once demonstrations die down.

Environmental safety concerns have been further fueled by a string of serious accidents involving deadly chemicals in China.

In August, 173 people, many of them firefighters, were killed in a chemical explosion in the port of Tianjin involving 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide. Investigators said the warehouses storing the chemicals had been built too close to residential units and numerous people were arrested for violating regulations on safe distances.

Environment minister unveils carbon reduction pledge for Hong Kong but local conservationists sceptical

CTA says:

Is this the ENB which claimed our recycling rate was 52% until exposed at 1/2 that by Operation Green Fence , which has no source separation of waste legislation, which stated our landfills will be full by 2018 whereas if we use the sewers (UK CIWEM worldwide policy) for food waste we actually have 39 years of landfill life left?

Are these trustworthy people ?

Reduce carbon by 2020 – but the incinerator will commence in 2013 & for every kg of MSW burned you get 1 kg of CO2 produced, alongside the other deadly toxins

Of course if they had not lied about the landfill life, there would not have been any incinerator approval as they hoodwinked Legco

Meanwhile, where is our Zero Waste policy ?

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Event timed with Earth Day is government’s first major climate change initiative since Paris summit

Dozens of government organisations, large corporations and dignitaries made a joint pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change on Earth Day, but some conservationists were already casting doubt about the agreement’s effectiveness.

The launch ceremony for “Carbon Reduction in Hong Kong” at Open University on Friday was the first major initiative to draw government participation since the United Nations climate change summit in Paris last December.

Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing said Hong Kong had an important role to play in the global battle against climate change, noting the city produced one-thousandth of the world’s greenhouse gases, despite having a population of just over seven million.

Wong added the government’s Steering Committee on Climate Change, set up after the Paris talks, would hold a public engagement forum in July to listen to stakeholders’ views, with an eye to formulating a proposal by the end of the year.

It was revealed from the committee’s first meeting earlier this month that Hong Kong was on track to reduce carbon intensity – the ratio of produced carbon dioxide to gross domestic product – by 50 to 60 per cent by 2020. Green groups have called for the government’s framework to extend beyond 2020.

Albert Lai, CEO of the environmental consultancy firm Carbon Care Asia, said it was up to the government to draw up concrete plans.

He also said the government had overlooked the impact of “embedded carbon” – a term for emissions associated the production of a product – from goods imported from overseas, such as mobile phones.

Reducing embedded emissions started with changing people’s everyday habits, Lai added. But he stated making headway would be an uphill battle.

Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman, a conservationist who founded the urban planning think tank Designing Hong Kong [3], echoed Lai’s views.

A guest at Friday’s ceremony, Zimmerman posted a photo on his Facebook page [5] showing bottles of water distributed at the venue to demonstrate how difficult it was for people to abandon “stubborn” habits.

John Sayer, former director general of Oxfam Hong Kong [6] and now with Carbon Care Asia, went further, calling the local initiative “ridiculous”. He added carbon reduction could only be tackled with legislation, price signal adjustments and education.

Law must make drinks firms pay for bottle waste, new Hong Kong green group says

The Green Earth is urging authorities to revisit an old pledge to introduce legislation on a ‘polluter pays’ scheme for plastic bottles

The city’s newest green group is urging authorities to revisit an old pledge to introduce legislation on a “polluter pays” scheme for plastic bottles.

The Green Earth said further delays to producer responsibility legislation would mean 132 tonnes, or five million PET plastic bottles, will continue to be disposed of every single day. The figure has nearly doubled from a decade ago.

“The previous administration set a road map for a PET plastic bottle producer responsibility scheme in place by 2008 but there’s been no news since,” said the group’s executive director Edwin Lau Che-feng. “If nothing is done now, the crisis will continue.”

The failure to implement such a scheme has meant about 12 billion bottles would have been disposed of since 2008 which Lau calculated would be “enough to circle the earth 58 times”. PET bottles take hundreds of years to fully decompose.

Lau urged the government to commence preliminary work on draft legislation such as business impact assessments to analyse how a charge on PET would affect or disrupt enterprises.

“[Beverage] producers have a corporate responsibility to bear some of the cost of all this waste given the profits they make,” said Lau. On the consumer side, he said the government could be doing more to promote plastic bottle recycling or adding more public water fountains.

A deposit scheme where consumers can get money back for returning bottles could also be worth considering.

A producer responsibility scheme requires manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers to share the responsibility for the collection, recycling, treatment and disposal of products to reduce environmental impact at the post-consumer stage.

Producer responsibility legislation is in place for plastic bags, certain waste electrical appliances and is under way for glass beverage containers.

The Environmental Protection Department said it would continue to examine whether it was necessary or appropriate to implement the scheme.
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This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator

Baltimore stands apart as the American big city with the most deaths caused by air pollution, and Curtis Bay is its dirtiest community. Several years ago, the air there stood to get even worse when the state approved a permit for a giant incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of trash every day and emit up to 1,240 pounds of lead and mercury every year.

But destiny intervened. More specifically, a 17-year-old high school senior named Destiny Watford.

Outraged that her community was once again “being dumped on” and that the health of her family and neighbors was being “sacrificed for a profit,” the self-described shy girl led fellow students at Benjamin Franklin High School in a four-year campaign that mobilized Curtis Bay and halted the incinerator’s construction indefinitely.

As state environmental officials seek to revoke the permit for good, Watford is being honored with one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards. On Monday, she was announced as a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for her community leadership.

Not only is Watford, at 20, the youngest of this year’s six recipients — who hail from Slovakia, Cambodia, Tanzania, Puerto Rico and Peru — she’s the third-youngest honoree in the history of the prize. She says she never imagined becoming an activist, let alone that her efforts would allow her to stand shoulder to shoulder with internationally recognized advocates of environmental justice. But her mother, Kimberly Kelly, isn’t surprised.

“I have five kids,” Kelly said, “and I just knew she was going to be different. She’s a debater. She wants to get her point across.”

Growing up in Curtis Bay, a community of rowhouses near Baltimore’s industrial southern tip, Watford watched her mother struggle with asthma. She knew neighbors afflicted with respiratory disease. During the campaign, when she and other students asked members of an art class at Franklin High if any of them had asthma, “almost every hand shot up,” Watford recalled last week.

A 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 113 people per 100,000 Maryland residents — higher than in any other state — die as a result of emissions from car and truck traffic, trains and ships, commercial heating systems and industrial smokestacks. Baltimore’s rate was far higher, exceeding that of New York City and smoggy Los Angeles.

Curtis Bay is Baltimore’s epicenter of pollution and bad health. Jutting into the bay where it meets the Patapsco River, it started out as a focal point for World War II-era shipping. It later gained a coal-burning power plant, a chemical-processing plant, a medical-waste incinerator and other industry.

And the air kept getting dirtier. In 2007 and 2008, Curtis Bay ranked worst in the nation for the release of toxic air pollutants, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project using emissions data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The following year, it ranked second.

Like many residents there, Watford had no idea the incinerator had been approved for her community until she saw a story about it on the Internet in 2012.

Energy Answers International was promoting the project — set to be the biggest of its kind in the nation — as an energy-producing power plant that would serve schools and other facilities. It would be located less than a mile from Franklin High and Curtis Bay Elementary, which state environmental regulations wouldn’t typically allow. But the rule became irrelevant when the Public Service Commission approved the incinerator as an energy plant.

The company said by email last week that the PSC granted the exemption because the tire rubber, vinyl, plastic, metals and other municipal waste burned at the site would be processed into a fuel elsewhere. About 1.5 million tons of landfill waste annually would be diverted, converted and marketed as renewable energy, making the facility, “by all definitions, an energy plant,” according to a company statement.

The statement noted the upper limits of lead and mercury emissions under the permit and said the company never expected the incinerator to approach those. The project would require 1,300 temporary construction workers and create 200 permanent jobs, the statement said.

Watford and her classmates were concerned more about the air. They formed an advocacy group called Free Your Voice and studied the history of industry and pollution in Curtis Bay, as well as in the nearby Brooklyn and Hawkins Point neighborhoods. They began knocking on doors, expanding their network to hundreds of residents who circulated petitions that resulted in thousands of signatures. Their rallying cry: “Clear air is a human right.”

About 100 Franklin High School students, community activists and union members march in late 2013 to the site of the highly contested incinerator as part of a campaign to stop its construction in Curtis Bay. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Ten students were the core of Free Your Voice, but the Goldman Prize will be given to Watford, because “she’s kind of been the glue, the person who not just stuck around but deepened her involvement,” said Greg Sawtell, an organizer for the nonprofit activist group United Workers who acted as a mentor and helped nominate her for the award.

“She distinguished herself beyond the organizing with her ability to use writing and creative expression through video,” Sawtell said. “Older people said they got involved from their doors being knocked on by Destiny. She inspired a multigenerational struggle. She showed a lot of wisdom and patience.”

Watford, whose soft Afro frames a baby face, had never heard of the prize. When the Goldman Prize director called to congratulate her, she almost didn’t answer because the number showing on her cellphone was unfamiliar. Then she didn’t know what to say: “I was really confused. I didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about.”

He was talking about her work. Early on, the students thought they would win because of the incinerator’s proximity to the two schools. They persevered after that setback and discovered that the school district and city government agencies had signed an agreement to purchase energy from the incinerator, according to the Goldman Prize. Watford led students to a school board meeting at which they used artwork and video to convince members to reconsider. The board eventually took a student-organized tour of the proposed site and divested from the project.

In the end, the plant was derailed last fall on a different issue identified by Free Your Voice. According to state law, construction on an industrial project must begin during the 18 months before a permit’s air-quality provision expires. That never happened. In December, the 90-acre construction site was still only gravel and patches of grass.

The students pressed the point during a showdown at the Maryland Department of the Environment’s headquarters. With the help of United Workers, Free Your Voice brought 200 protesters to confront Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. Only a few were allowed in for a discussion.

“We told them, ‘You guys have to take action. If not, there’s going to be a consequence,’ ” Watford recounted. The group would not accept the secretary’s explanation that his hands were tied by legal red tape, she said, and the protesters refused to leave until Grumbles declared that Energy Answers no longer met the air-quality provision. The agency officially notified the company last month of its decision.

“The permit had expired due to a lack of ‘continuous construction,’ ” Grumbles said in a statement last week. The statement acknowledged the students’ frustration over the months-long wait for his department’s final decision. It also singled out their leader.

“Destiny is a talented, resourceful and passionate young advocate,” Grumbles said, “with great potential to make a difference in the lives of those around her.”

The Goldman prize described her in similar terms, noting her “unwavering dedication and wisdom beyond her years.”

Energy Answers still holds a lease on the property and is fighting to build its plant, but at this stage of the process the company would have to get the community’s approval, which is unlikely. When Energy Answers President Patrick F. Mahoney attended a Curtis Bay meeting in March to talk about the jobs and revenue the plant would bring, he was shouted down by angry residents.

Watford, who is a junior at Towson University north of Baltimore, is now leading an effort to turn half of the proposed construction site into a community-owned solar panel farm. The project would provide energy to schools and businesses just as the incinerator would have — but without the same health risks.

Parents unconvinced as Chinese authorities pledge investigations into soil blamed for students’ health problems, including cancer

Parents of students suffering health problems blamed on polluted soil near a school in Jiangsu are sceptical of investigations by state environmental and education authorities.

Some do not even trust local hospitals to carry out health checks on their children, suspecting they may have been pressured by the city authorities.

Many are questioning whether to continue sending their children to the school, which charges 8,500 yuan (HK$10,170) per ¬semester and is among the best in Changzhou.

The ministries of environmental protection and education ordered investigations into the problems at Changzhou Foreign Language School, prompted by an expose by state broadcaster CCTV.

The broadcaster said 493 pupils had developed health problems, including bronchitis, blood and thyroid abnormalities, and even lymphoma and leukaemia, after the school moved last September to a new campus adjacent to a site that had been contaminated by three chemical plants.

The plants left in 2010 and when the school moved to the campus, a project to remedy the polluted soil was launched. However, the project was thought to have released some of the site’s toxins into the atmosphere.

The city’s environmental authorities say the air and soil are now safe, after the project was suspended and the site covered with a layer of clay in February.

But CCTV said the soil and groundwater still contained toxic compounds. It said the level of cancer-causing chlorobenzene in the groundwater was nearly 100,000 times the safety limit.

“We are very scared and don’t know which side we should believe,” the mother of a 14-year-old boy said.“It’s horrific… the chemical pollution poses long-term [health] risks.”

She took her son to a hospital in nearby Wuxi for a checkup, as parents suspect hospitals in Changzhou have been told by the government to give “special treatment” to pupils from the school.

“I was told that all students from the school received the same result: that there is no problem with their health,” she said.

The doctor in Wuxi found the boy to have a slight thyroid problem, but did not directly link the illness to the environment.

A father surnamed Kang whose daughter is in grade eight hoped the school would relocate.

“My daughter took a week off at the start of this semester [over pollution concerns]. But she wanted to go back to school so dearly. Every day I am in a dilemma over whether I should let her go to this school or not,” he said.

He told his daughter not to drink the water at the school, and hired a maid to prepare and deliver lunch to her every day.

On January 15, nearly 1,000 parents joined an overnight protest demanding the school relocate. Hundreds of police were deployed to scatter the crowds. They later visited protesters’ homes and said those who worked at government agencies or state-owned companies were risking their jobs.

The mother said some students were reluctant to leave the school as they had grown emotionally attached to teachers and schoolmates.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the scandal revealed “loopholes in almost every link of environmental supervision”. “The fact the [plants] were able to pump so many pollutants underground reflects a chronic lack of supervision,” he said.

The soil remedy project had obviously failed to identify potential health concerns – and China still did not have a law to regulate such practices, Ma said.

A lack of transparency over soil pollution and chemical pollutants in general made public supervision near impossible, he added.

Simply covering the soil with a layer of clay would not solve the problem, as the health implications of polluted soil and groundwater could take decades to emerge, Ma said.
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