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Worsening Levels Of Air Pollution Leaves Green Groups Breathless

Environmental management

Government’s ‘obvious reluctance’ to tackle worsening levels of air pollution leaves green groups breathless

Jacqueline Tsang – Updated on Jan 18, 2008 – SCMP

The government has spent HK$23billion on waste management and environmental programmes since 1997, but visibility in urban areas has dropped 33 per cent in the past 10 years and landfill space is only expected to last for another nine years, according to green groups.

Volunteer environmental groups said they felt more could be done by the government.

Christian Masset, chairman of Clear the Air, a volunteer organisation targeting Hong Kong’s air pollution issues, said: “The government is obviously reluctant to put in maximum effort to clean the air for fear that it would frustrate the interests of certain big businesses. The result is that the people and the image of Hong Kong suffer greatly.”

A spokesman from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) denied the government had placed business interests ahead of public safety. She said the government’s goal of improving air quality was “a key priority … and is determined to combat air pollution”.

Mr Masset said the government’s reticence in replacing diesel trucks was a major cause for concern.

Edwin Lau, director of the registered environmental charity Friends of the Earth, said that while the government had introduced a scheme last year that provided incentives for diesel vehicle owners to replace their pre-Euro and Euro-1 standard diesel vehicles for new Euro-4 diesel trucks within 18 months, it was not mandatory.

The government is prepared to allot up to HK$3.2billion in incentives for the scheme, but it appears this is not incentive enough for vehicle owners to take action.

According to Mr Lau, less than 2 per cent of truck owners have applied for the subsidy.

The government also proposed a ban on idling vehicles in November last year, and Clear the Air has been providing help on the legislation in the hopes that it would be passed by this autumn.

But Mr Lau said that the effectiveness of this ban, in terms of improving air quality, was unclear.

“Targeting franchised buses and old diesel trucks would have a significantly larger impact on roadside air pollution,” he said.

“However, the government seems to shy away from harder battles and larger corporations.” Mr Masset explained that emission from diesel trucks was just one of the major causes of air pollution in Hong Kong. Other polluters include ocean vessels and emissions from the two power companies – CLP Power and Hongkong Electric.

He warned that if these issues were not addressed, and preventive measures not immediately implemented, the city’s average Air Pollution Index (API) could reach 200.

An API of 100 to 200 is considered “very high”, while 201 to 500 is listed as “severe”, forcing people suffering from heart and respiratory diseases to stay indoors.

Other major environmental concerns in Hong Kong include water quality and waste management.

According to Felix Leung Ka-wang, senior information officer at the Environment Bureau and EPD, as of last year, 83 per cent of the 41 gazetted beaches in Hong Kong met the Water Quality Objective (WQO) and were declared safe for swimming. However, seven beaches in the Tsuen Wan area couldn’t meet the WQO and were subsequently closed to swimmers.

“Stage 2A of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, which deals with the treatment and disinfection of unsafe effluent in the water, is anticipated to come into operation late next year,” Mr Leung said.

“The ongoing implementation of local sewerage works will facilitate the re-opening of Tsuen Wan beaches.”

As for the problem of waste piling up faster than landfill space can expand, other than disposal charges for construction waste that were introduced in 2006, Mr Leung pointed to other efforts including the development of facilities to reduce the bulk of waste, and the Source Separation of Domestic Waste Programme, in which 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s households were expected to take part in separating out their waste for recycling by 2010.

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