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May 8th, 2011:

Watchdog upholds air quality complaint

South China Morning Post — 8 May 2011

The Ombudsman has upheld a landmark complaint from an environmental group which accused the Hong Kong government of dragging its heels over setting new air quality standards.

After a five-month investigation, the watchdog – which has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of officialdom – said the government should set out a timetable for new air quality objectives to give the public a clear picture of progress.

Yesterday, Friends of the Earth, which lodged the complaint with the government watchdog in November, welcomed the decision but expressed frustration that the Ombudsman had not found officials guilty of maladministration.

The green group’s senior environmental affairs officer, Thomas Choi Ka-man, said they received a letter on Friday from the watchdog confirming their complaint had been upheld. Choi said his organisation was pleased but added: “We are disappointed as the department’s delay is not considered maladministration.”

Last night the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) said it welcomed the Ombudsman’s report but added that it was already reporting progress on the matter to the Legislative Council every six months.

“We welcome the reply of the Ombudsman regarding the complaint about the Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) Review. We are also working closely with the concerned bureaux and departments and other stakeholders with a view to drawing up a practicable timetable.”

The department also said the proposed air quality improvement measures covered a wide range of issues and cut across a number of often complicated policy areas. “The government needs to analyse in detail the different views collected and assess their impacts on the relevant policies in order to fully consider and co-ordinate the implementation of the recommended measures. We are pleased to note that the Ombudsman accepts that the government would need more time to achieve consensus within the community.”

According to Friends of the Earth, the Ombudsman’s letter said: “To improve air quality, the department should not only focus on amending the objectives alone without complementary measures. From an overall prospective, the situation has not constituted maladministration.

“However, there are increasing public expectations for better air quality following the public consultation. Our office [Ombudsman’s office] believes that even though the department may have encountered difficulties in setting new air quality objectives and in carrying out measures, it still needs to set out a timetable and explain to the public the progress and difficulties.

“It [the department] should put in place the new air quality objectives as early as possible,” the letter said.

The Ombudsman’s office refused to comment on its letter to Friends of the Earth.

In January, the Ombudsman pledged to investigate why the government had yet to set new air quality objectives even though it had conducted a review of air standards three years ago and invited public comment last year.

The government commissioned a consultant to review the objectives in 2007. It came up with a public consultation document that proposed a new set of standards recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But a year after people gave their views on the public consultation document in November 2009, officials are still not saying when new objectives will be introduced. The delay has added to doubts about the government’s determination to improve air quality, which has worsened year after year at street level.