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July 5th, 2016:

Lines drawn as legal battle over third Hong Kong runway begins

Campaigners fearful of environmental damage aim to stop work from starting next month as marine expert warns it ‘could be the last stand’

A four-day judicial battle between activists and airport officials over the contentious third runway project begins today, with the former hoping that a High Court decision will stop initial works from commencing next month.

The judicial review lodged by Lantau resident Ho Loy and supported by the Dolphin Conservation Society and People’s Aviation Watch, challenges the Environmental Protection Department’s issuing of an environmental permit to the Airport Authority. They were granted leave last February.

Marine biologist Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, who chairs the society and has lobbied hard against the plan since its inception, said he was optimistic that there will be a positive result.

“This could be the last stand,” said Hung. “We feel our reasoning is strong and exposes very obvious breaches of procedural justice.”

The challengers say there are two unresolved areas of the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) – airspace and habitat loss – both of which contain major, unaddressed issues.

The team is pointing to a lack of immediate mitigation measures to compensate more than 650 hectares of irreversible habitat loss, mainly to the Chinese white dolphin, offering instead an enlarged marine park when the project is complete in 2023.

The report was also said to have “written off” cumulative impacts from major infrastructure projects nearby such as future reclamation works off Lung Kwu Tan and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge’s artificial island.

Another point in their crosshairs was the authority’s floating of additional “enhancement” measures, unrelated to the EIA and not legally binding, to spruce up the project and put “icing on the cake”, said Hung.

He believed this was a move to appease members of the Advisory Council on the Environment, which must endorse the report before it can be passed on to the director of environmental protection for the stamp.

The challenge will also raise issues with the assessment of noise and air quality impacts, which was based on assumptions that airspace issues with the mainland would be resolved.

“The EPD never got a confirmation on this from the Civil Aviation Department,” said a spokeswoman for the People’s Aviation Watch concern group. “If the assumptions are wrong in the first place, its likely that the outcome will be, too.”

Hung claims a victory for his group may render the authority’s environmental permit null and delay the project. The legal team, led by Senior Counsel Nigel Kat, will cite the KCRC Corp’s HK$7 billion bid to build a rail rink through the Long Valley wetland, which was rejected by the EPD in 2000 on grounds that the operator would not be effective in compensating habitat loss. A subsequent appeal was also turned down.

But a defeat would mean initial reclamation works for the HK$141.5 billion runway and the collection of fees from travellers to pay for it will begin as planned on August 1, an outcome they believe would set a precedent for exploiting the EIA system.

“In the future, anyone will just submit a lousy EIA, ignore everyone’s comments, and then propose enhancement measures to get the approval,” Hung said.

A spokesman for the authority declined to comment as the case had entered judicial proceedings.
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Changes to China’s environmental review law leave activists worried

Under revisions quietly made by the legislature this weekend, projects can seek approval from various departments even if the assessment process isn’t finished

For green activists, environmental impact reviews – despite their often poor implementation – are a critical weapon in the fight against polluting industrial projects.

But under a revision to the assessment law, quietly passed by the National People’s Congress over the weekend, the review is no longer a “precondition” for a project to begin the approval process with other departments.

The change is ostensibly aimed at cutting red tape and ¬removing hurdles to private investment. But activists fear it could usher in a new permissive era, where approval by one department gives a project enough momentum to steamroll a legitimate examination into its effects on the environment.

The review process was enshrined into law in 2003 and effectively gave environmental authorities veto power over a project. and the public a channel to formally register their concerns over a project.

Senior environmental officials – including former vice-minister Pan Yue – used the mechanism to take on powerful state-owned companies and halt construction of dams and petrochemical projects.

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun said environmental authorities might now come under greater pressure to green light a controversial project if other departments had approved it.

The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead?

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun

For instance, if the developer of an incinerator project had won permission to use land for a project and other approvals were ready, environmental authorities might not be willing to reject it.

“It’s not a problem to cut red tape and weaken government power. The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead? It’s a pity I don’t see such a change in the revision,” Xia said. Zhou Rong, an environmental consultant in Beijing, said the government was right to cut red tape holding up projects, given the drive to boost private investment amid slower economic growth.

“The amendment weakens the vetoing power of the environmental review mechanism, and no feasible alternative has been offered,” she said.

Ge Feng, a legal consultant with Friends of Nature, said the impact of the change would depend on how ministries – especially environmental officials – carried out their duties.

The revision to the law was carried out in an unusual way. Previously, the public was asked to offer their opinion on environmental legislation before it was passed into law.

But they were not asked to participate in the latest revision, which came amid a wave of protests against incinerators in several mainland cities.

Asked whether a weaker review mechanism meant the public’s voice in decision-making was being undermined, Mei Nianshu, a green activist based in Yunnan province, said: “I’m afraid so.”
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