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Green law has limited impact

Approval for major works is almost a foregone conclusion despite requirements of 1998 act

Cheung Chi-fai and Olga Wong
Updated on Jul 19, 2011

The Environmental Protection Department has rejected only seven out of 196 environmental impact assessment studies on major construction projects over the past 13 years, according to the latest figures available on its website – prompting critics to question the effectiveness of the law and call for reforms.

When Hong Kong introduced the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance in 1998 , it was hailed as the most important milestone in its environment policy. The ordinance makes it mandatory for major construction projects to go through a process of identifying potential damage to the environment, to engage in public consultation and undergo government experts’ scrutiny before construction can begin.

But the records for the past 13 years tell a different story. Since the law was introduced, the department has rejected seven assessment reports – less than four per cent of the cases it handled. Twenty-seven were withdrawn before the final process and a total of 162 applications were approved.

Details of the seven rejected reports are scarce, but the government is clearly the biggest beneficiary of the low rejection rate, as government projects account for roughly two-thirds of the 196 cases.

Because different countries have different systems to carry out environmental impact assessments, there is no directly comparable foreign experience. But most experts said the rate is “extremely low”.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense – a group advocating better urban planning – said the problem was inherent in the system, which takes environmental impacts into consideration only at the final stage of decision-making.

“The rejection rate is bound to be low under the existing set-up, in which [government] has already pre-determined a project to be necessary for development [before conducting the assessment]. The EIA process is almost the last step to make that happen. Unless they find there is a risk of massive damage to the environment, an impact study is rarely rejected,” said Tam.

Paul Lam Kwan-sing, chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Environment, disagreed.

He said only a few assessment reports were rejected because it was a long process and many issues raised during the assessment were addressed and revised in the final report.

Similarly, “few university theses are failed by examiners, as they have been continuously revised with advice given by professors”, Lam said.

However, he agreed the system could be improved and made more independent by inviting foreign experts to participate.

A spokesman for the Environment Protection Department said the EIA process was strictly governed by law, and stressed that the operation is objective and transparent.

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