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Proposed 3rd runway on Chek Lap Kok creates more problems than the one that AAHK allege exists

The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK)’s recent proposal to reclaim more land in the Pearl River Estuary to build a third runway has come under much flak, and perhaps rightly so. The AAHK is alleging that, based on the continued growth of air traffic volume in the past years, Chek Lap Kok’s capacity will be saturated by 2030. It seems obviously necessary to expand Chek Lap Kok, but this narrative is less appealing when one considers several other events at play: Chek Lap Kok is currently running only at about 65% capacity; neighbouring airports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are aggressively expanding, providing fierce competition for the growth pie that is being projected; the airways around Chek Lap Kok are already congested in part because of this competition; poor economic horizon is on the horizon, which will affect airline profits; a growing market to consume internally China’s produce rather than exporting, reducing the demand for cargo shipment.

Rapidly expanding airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen competes with Chek Lap Kok for both airspace and business. (Shenzhen Media Group)

Of course, AAHK can choose to ignore these warning signs and continue drinking the kool-aid. But they cannot ignore the very real problems that building the Third Runway is going to cause:

  • The increase in simultaneous air traffic is going to generate a lot more noise pollution, a concern for Tung Chung residents not just as annoyance but quite possibly a direct health hazard.
  • The reclamation work required for the runway expansion is huge, and will severely impact pink dolphins native to the Pearl River Estuary. This concern has already been thrown out of the window during the proposals for building the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and should not be ignored again.
  • The expansion comes into a direct conflict of interest with Shenzhen’s cargo shipping network. Height restrictions on cargo ships passing through shipping channels in the vicinity of the airway will come into play, which will deeply displease Shenzhen’s port development authorities. Incidentally, they are already fuming over a failed proposal to expand the waterways near Chek Lap Kok, which the Hong Kong government rejected on precisely the environmental concerns for the pink dolphins that they themselves now ignore; Shenzhen officials see this slight as Hong Kong’s tactics to stave off competition.

AAHK’s representative saw fit to address only the issue of cargo shipping space, and even there, all there is is a single vague assurance: “putting in place an appropriate administrative arrangement between the relevant authorities in Hong Kong and Shenzhen”; no evidence that they have given the real problems substantial thought.

James Middleton makes a simple and salient point: it would be easier and cheaper to soundproof every single Tung Chung residence and change Chek Lap Kok’s from an 18-h to a 24-h airport, than to build a new runway.

It's probably easier to soundproof all apartments in Tung Chung than to build a third runway. (Square Foot)

Decision makers would do well to step back from dreaming of grand projects and justifying their legitimacy with visions of problems, while ignoring the real problems they would cause.

Aircraft noise may increase risk of heart disease, say researchers

Sarah Boseley for the Guardian

People who live close to an airport and are exposed to constant loud aircraft noise may face an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to studies from the UK and the US published on Tuesday night.

The continual barrage of noise from planes taking off and landing may cause actual harm to health as well as reducing the quality of people’s lives, the studies say, and their findings should be factored in to future planning decisions about new airports and runways.

A study published online by the British Medical Journal looking at the health of people living in the vicinity of Heathrow airport found those with the highest exposure were 10-20% more likely to be admitted to hospital for stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. There was also an increased risk of death from those diseases. A linked study of the health of more than six million Americans over the age of 65 living around 89 US airports found that, on average, their risk went up 3.5% for every extra 10 decibels of noise.

The scientists warn that what they have found is a link and not proof that high aircraft noise levels cause disease. Although they have taken into account the socioeconomic background, ethnicity and likely state of health of people living in the affected areas – which is probably not as good as that of much of the population – neither study could look at the individual circumstances of those who were admitted to hospital.

But, says Professor Stephen Stansfeld at Queen Mary University of London in an editorial, “these studies provide preliminary evidence that aircraft noise exposure is not just a cause of annoyance, sleep disturbance, and reduced quality of life but may also increase morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease.

“The results imply that the siting of airports and consequent exposure to aircraft noise may have direct effects on the health of the surrounding population. Planners need to take this into account when expanding airports in heavily populated areas or planning new airports.”

The UK study was carried out by researchers at the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit and MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, which was set up after scares linking the nuclear reprocessing plant Windscale (later Sellafield) to cancers in the vicinity. They looked at the health of residents of 12 London boroughs and nine districts outside London where aircraft noise exceeds 50 decibels – about the volume of a normal conversation in a quiet room – between 2001 and 2005.

Those who had to put up with the highest noise levels – more than 63 decibels in the day or 55 decibels at night – had the highest risks. They make up about 2% of the 3.6 million people living in the study area.

“The exact role that noise exposure may play in ill health is not well established,” said the lead author, Dr Anna Hansell from the school of public health at Imperial College London. “However, it is plausible that it might be contributing, for example by raising blood pressure or by disturbing people’s sleep. The relative importance of daytime and night-time noise also needs to be investigated further.”

While diet, exercise, smoking and medical conditions – as well as road traffic noise – all raise people’s risks of cardiovascular disease, the scientists say aircraft noise should not be ignored.

“How best to meet commercial aircraft capacity for London and other major cities is a matter of active debate,” they say. “However, policy decisions need to take account of potential health related concerns, including possible effects of environmental noise on cardiovascular health.”

The US study was carried out by scientists at the Harvard school of public health and Boston University school of public health. They found that 2.3% of hospitalisations for cardiovascular disease among older people living near airports were attributable to aircraft noise.

Despite some study limitations, the researchers say their results “provide evidence of a statistically significant association between exposure to aircraft noise and cardiovascular health, particularly at higher exposure levels.”

Other scientists agreed that the studies showed a possible link between aircraft noise and cardiovascular disease, but said more evidence was needed if noise was to be established as the actual cause of illness.

“A major difficulty in interpreting what these studies tell us is that they are based on data for geographical areas, not for individual people,” said Kevin McConway, a professor of applied statistics at Open University, adding: “Geographical areas don’t get heart attacks and strokes – individual people do.”

He said: “Within any one of the areas they studied, individuals vary in terms of how much aircraft noise they personally are exposed to, depending on how much time they actually spend at home in the area, how good the sound insulation of their home is, and a whole host of other reasons.” The UK study adjusted for smoking but neither study adjusted for diet and exercise, he added.

9 Oct 2013

Hong Kong’s third runway may stymie Shenzhen’s big cargo vessels

by Anita Lam of SCMP

Shenzhen port fears height restriction could restrict navigation of massive cargo vessels

A proposed third runaway at the Hong Kong International Airport could cost port terminals in western Shenzhen millions of dollars a year in lost business.

The project, already criticised for its HK$136 billion price tag and potentially adverse impact on the environment, may also hurt relations between the neighbouring cities.

The problem comes in the form a height restriction on shipping passing close to the runway. The restriction would extend beyond Hong Kong waters and into Shenzhen’s marine territory and could mean a new generation of massive cargo ships could not access western Shenzhen ports like Chiwan and Shekou without a huge detour.

The Hong Kong and Shenzhen governments are understood to be in talks over a solution. But people with knowledge of the discussions say the initial proposals from Hong Kong do not address long-term sea traffic demands and may compromise the competitiveness of port facilities in western Shenzhen.

According to a document seen by the South China Morning Post, the Airport Authority proposes to extend marine restrictions in place around the existing runways into Shenzhen waters to accommodate the third runway.

That would mean vessels standing 53 metres or taller out of the water could not use the Lunggu West Fairway, the most direct of the three routes into the western Shenzhen port terminals, at a time when shipping lines are increasingly using huge vessels standing 25 storeys or more.

Shenzhen authorities and port bosses fear the restriction will damage the ability of ports in western Shenzhen to compete with Hong Kong, eastern Shenzhen and the Nansha area of Guangzhou, which is benefitting from massive investment in improved access channels.

Large ships would have to take a detour through the less direct Tunggu Channel, or use Hong Kong’s busy Ma Wan Channel.

China Merchant Holdings (International), the largest shareholder of Chiwan and Shekou ports, said such a restriction would have a “serious impact” on Lunggu West Channel’s use.

The Hong Kong side is trying to convince Shenzhen the impact would be minimal. They say the height limit for the area of the channel falling directly beneath the flight path would be closer to 100 metres – much higher than any ship. The height limit elsewhere would exist on paper only. Shenzhen, for its part, wants Hong Kong to stop flights to and from the third runway when a huge ship passes.

Former Hong Kong civil aviation chief Peter Lok Kung-nam said that idea was a non-starter.

“If there’s only one large vessel passing by each month, accommodating it is not a problem, but if there is one passing every day, of course there will be a problem,” Lok said.

One Hong Kong marine officer said most of the ships passing through the channel now were below 50 metres, but the Shenzhen government hoped to expand the channel to accommodate bigger ships.

Professor Zheng Tianxiang , a veteran scholar studying cross-border infrastructure in the Pearl River Delta, said although Shenzhen authorities had no influence over the third runway, Hong Kong officials should ensure the expansion did not come at the expense of its neighbour.

“Hong Kong will need Shenzhen’s help in many future projects like the high-speed rail line to Guangzhou and the rail line connecting Hong Kong’s airport to Shenzhen’s,” Zheng said. “They should co-operate with each other with diligence and consideration.”

The government is expected to make a final decision on the third runway in 2015.

An Airport Authority spokeswoman said plans for the third runway were not finalised. The authority is understood to be conducting an impact study to be completed next year.
15 Oct 2013

Battle looms over Shenzhen’s plans to expand port

by Anita Lam of SCMP

The competing needs of Hong Kong aviation, Shenzhen shipping and endangered pink dolphins are sowing the seeds of conflict between the neighbouring cities.

The growth of Shenzhen’s western ports has long been limited by difficulties with the Tunggu Channel, a major access point to the ports since it was created in 2000. Shenzhen authorities originally asked for permission to route the channel through Hong Kong waters to allow access for bigger cargo ships. But the request was blocked on environmental grounds.

Now a new battleground is emerging as Shenzhen’s plans to open up another channel clash with the expansion of Hong Kong’s airport.

Shenzhen wants to make the Longgu West Channel, a fairway mostly for small and medium-sized ocean-going vessels, accessible to some of the world’s biggest container ships. But that plan risks being scuppered by restrictions on the height of ships passing close to the future third runway at the airport. The height restrictions on waterways around the airport would, for the first time, stretch into mainland waters.

Hong Kong has dismissed Shenzhen’s worries on the grounds that most of the ships using the channel fit beneath the 50-metre height limit. But Shenzhen has aspirations to dredge the channel to accommodate the mammoth container ships international companies are turning to as they seek to cut costs.

A battle where the only sure losers are the dolphins native to the area. (SCMP)

It puts Hong Kong and the mainland boomtown on a collision course, at a time when the two cities, despite their close ties, find themselves competing on several fronts, not least in the port business.

Shenzhen’s port has been catching up with the Kwai Chung container terminal, and its cargo volume this year is set to overtake Hong Kong for the first time.

According to the latest statistics from the Shenzhen Ports Association and the Hong Kong Port Development Council, the number of boxes moved through Shenzhen’s ports, including Chiwan, Yantian and Dachan Bay, rose 1.2 per cent year-on-year in the first eight months of this year, reaching 15.26 million 20-foot equivalent units (teu). By contrast, Kwai Chung handled 14.53 million teu, down 6.9 per cent, in part because of a recent strike by dockers.

Shenzhen has aggressively taken advantage of the rise of China and the proximity of its ports to the manufacturing heartlands around the Pearl River Delta. It has improved efficiency and reduced its cost structure to bolster its competitiveness.

Since the early 1990s, the Shenzhen government has worked with private investors such as Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa to pour billions of dollars into berths and other port facilities.

But Shenzhen’s port is split by the Kowloon Peninsula. And while those terminals to the east – including Hutchison’s Yantian facility – have thrived, access problems have limited growth in the west, which is dominated by the state-owned China Merchant Holdings (International). Meanwhile, Wharf subsidiary Modern Terminal has more recently invested in Dachan Bay in the west.

The three major terminals in western Shenzhen are determined to break the bottleneck caused by the limitations of the Tunggu and Longgu West channels. Not only are they losing trade to Yantian, which alone takes 40 per cent of Shenzhen’s cargo traffic, they also face competition from the ports of neighbouring Nansha in western Guangzhou, where the local government has invested heavily in channel improvements to snatch western Shenzhen’s traffic.

“For a long time ocean-going vessels heading to Shenzhen west have to take Hong Kong’s Ma Wan Channel because the Longgu West Fairway is not deep enough for big ships,” said Sunny Ho, executive director of Hong Kong Shippers Council. “Then they developed their own Tunggu channel, but due to limitations in its alignment, the utilisation is very low.”

When the Shenzhen authorities planned the Tunggu channel in early 2000 to avoid Hong Kong’s crowded Ma Wan Channel, they put forward three proposals – all of which would have seen ships pass through Hong Kong waters, to the southwest of Lantau Island, taking it close to the habitat of the endangered pink dolphin.

While the Shenzhen port authority claimed the dredging works and the increased sea traffic would have little impact on the dolphins, Hong Kong’s director of environmental protection was not convinced, saying the Shenzhen authorities had not provided sufficient evidence to support their claim.

As a result, the channel was diverted to the west, leaving sharp turns in the route and other problems, including strong currents, restricted operating times and an overlap with the Lingding Fairway, which takes ships to the port of Guangzhou.

In the years since, environmental campaigners have accused the Hong Kong government of showing rather less concern for the dolphins’ habitat when it approved the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, or in the planning of the third runway.

Some smell conspiracy.

Shi Huisheng, an officer with the planning arm of Shenzhen’s Transport Bureau, suggested in the journal Charming China three years ago that the rejection of the channel plan by Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department was due to the city’s fear of competition.

Now the conflict is being reignited as Shenzhen looks at ways to accommodate some of the world’s biggest vessels. While the western ports can accommodate only ships of 100,000 deadweight tonnes, the new generation of cargo ships can weigh as much as 165,000 deadweight tonnes

Danish shipping giant Maersk is leading the way with the purchase of 20 triple E-class container ships, the latest leviathan of the sea, capably of carrying up to 18,000 teu. The company says the economies of scale from the huge ships can help it save 35 per cent on fuel costs. It expects to trim a further 8 per cent by sharing vessels with the world’s two other largest container shipping companies, CMA CGM and MCS.

The trend towards ever larger vessels and sharing of resources is expected to continue as the industry struggles with the slowdown in international trade.

While the Shenzhen Port Authority has already put contracts out to tender to widen the Tunggu channel, Shi Huisheng from the Shenzhen transport bureau said authorities should also consider expanding Longgu West channel and make it a complimentary fairway for Tunggu.

“Vessels could enter Shenzhen west via the Tunggu channel, then leave via Longgu West,” Shi said.

“In this way, the incoming traffic and the outgoing traffic would be better organised, navigation safety guaranteed, and it also could avoid Tunggu channel’s overlapping problem with Lingding Channel.”

But the height restriction puts that into question.

Professor Zheng Tianxiang, a specialist in cross-border infrastructure at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said Hong Kong must come up with a good solution and make sure its infrastructure did not come at the expense of its neighbour’s economic interests.

“If you trick Shenzhen this time, Shenzhen may trick you back next time, and there are so many cross-border projects that the two governments have to work upon in the future,” he said.

But a person familiar with the talks says tricking Shenzhen is the last thing on the mind of the Hong Kong government. Instead, the Airport Authority is studying ways to limit the impact of the height restriction on the Longgu West channel. The person said it was likely the two sides would come up with a feasible solution.

In fact, a veteran marine officer says a height cap is unlikely to have a big impact as it would be difficult for the Longgu West channel to be dredged to a level sufficient for some of the biggest container vessels.

“The shallowest part of that channel is less than 10 metres deep – only about half the depth required for a loaded cargo vessel of above 100,000 deadweight tonnes. How much effort and money would it take for Shenzhen to dredge that far?” the officer asked.

But that’s exactly what the Guangzhou government achieved with its Nansha ports, pouring in billions of yuan to expand a channel that was just a few metres deep into one big enough to accommodate the seventh-generation cargo ships, which carry up to 14,000 teu.

With money and determination, it seems, little is impossible for the mainland authorities.

15 Oct 2013

Third Runway impact on Shenzhen cargo ships can be minimized

Tommy Leung, general manager, projects, Airport Authority. in SCMP – Letters

In response to the article, “Third runway may stymie big ships” (October 15), the Airport Authority would like to point out that the associated scheme designs for the planned three-runway system – covering the layout of the new runway and its related terminal and concourse facilities, operation and taxiway systems – are currently under way.

The scheme designs also examine the impact of the new airport height restriction zone and approach area under the three-runway system on the sea.

The authority is in the process of consulting pertinent stakeholders such as the marine industry, ferry operators and the relevant authorities in Shenzhen.

Recently, the authority launched a study assessing the impact, if any, of the planned third runway on the operations and volume of marine and air traffic inside the airport height restriction zone and approach area. This is expected to be completed in 2014.

Initial findings suggest that the impact and risks to marine operations (including those for the Lantau Anchorage No 2 and Longgu West Fairway) arising from the operation of the third runway can be managed effectively by putting in place an appropriate administrative arrangement between the relevant authorities in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Doing so would allow even the biggest ocean-going vessels to travel within the airport height restriction zone. Similar practices have proven to be practical for many other airports facing a similar situation.

The three-runway system project is very important to Hong Kong, and we are committed to conducting its development in a professional and responsible manner.

Given the complexity and scale of the project, we understand that stakeholders may have views about its potential impact.

We would like to assure all concerned parties that their views are being taken on board and addressed.

We would also like to reiterate our firm commitment to identifying and properly managing all likely impacts to ensure the feasibility of the three-runway system.

21 Oct 2013

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