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July 18th, 2011:

Runway means more noise, poll reveals

South China Morning Post – 18 July 2011

Green group took readings on roofs and found noise levels similar to a busy road

The severe noise pollution caused by aircraft flying throughout the night across north Lantau and the New Territories will get worse if a third runway is built, say concerned residents.

The average noise level of planes passing over Ma Wan, Sham Tseng and Tsuen Wan between 11pm and 3am throughout the week hit about 70 decibels, similar to the level of a busy road, according to a survey conducted by Green Sense last week. The readings were taken on the roofs of residential buildings.

The environmental group claimed the survey was first of its kind carried out by a non-governmental body.

“With the present noise problem unresolved, it is unreasonable to construct a third runway and expand the noise pollution affected area,” said Jan Lai Ming-chuen, vice-president of Green Sense.

As the proposed third runway would be built in Chek Lap Kok north, it was expected that Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun residents would also have to bear with loud aircraft noise, said Professor Chan King-ming, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s environmental sciences programme. He suggested the government expand existing runways instead.

Residents of Ma Wan complained that aircraft noise had become more severe, disturbing their sleep and forcing them to keep their windows shut most of the time.

“How can you sleep peacefully with noise like a busy road next to you?” said Lam Wai-man, chairman of the owners’ committee of Park Island private housing estate in Ma Wan. He said the noise was loud enough to shake a ceiling.

In 1999, a year after the Hong Kong International Airport started operation, there was only one case of aircraft noise above 80 decibels recorded at night over Ma Wan throughout the year. In 2007, the number of cases had jumped to more than 300, said Lam, citing Civil Aviation Department figures.

Ma Wan was not included in the area affected by aircraft noise “beyond acceptable level”, according to the Airport Authority. However, the assessment was made in 1998.

The Airport Authority said last night it had a noise ceiling for the airport and so far the levels were below that standard. The authority met residents’ representatives in Ma Wan in July and agreed to set up a group to look at ways of further reducing the noise.

No smooth ride for biodiesel

South China Morning Post – 18 July 2011

A plant in Tseung Kwan O should have been running last year, but work has been suspended; sector faces obstacles, including lack of government support

Wan Po Road, or at least its English rendering – Environmental Protection Road – seems like a contradiction in terms to those living and working in the Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate to which the road leads.

Neither will the irony of the name be lost on commuters who have to suffer intermittent whiffs from nearby landfills as they travel to and from the estate.

But the same road also leads to a genuine environmental protection industry player hoping to open for business in the estate – a company that has undertaken to turn used cooking oil into biodiesel, which is far cleaner than petroleum diesel.

Unfortunately, the plant’s construction has been suspended, with no official indication of when it will resume.

Hong Kong’s biodiesel producers, who use waste cooking oil as feedstock, say it is difficult to make a profit because of the lack of active government support for such initiatives. The Hong Kong government has set a goal to cut the city’s carbon emission intensity by up to 60 per cent by 2020, but is relying on the greater use of nuclear power to cut its carbon footprint – despite safety concerns raised in Japan after the deadly March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

According to a subcontractor for the project and security guards who declined to be identified, ASB Biodiesel (Hong Kong) has stopped work on a partially-built plant capable of churning out 100,000 tonnes of biodiesel annually.

It is not clear exactly when work stopped. A guard at the 18,000 square metre site said no work had been carried out for several months, while a guard at the entrance to a neighbouring building said it was more like a year since work ended.

No construction workers were seen during two visits to the site by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcements,news) on separate week days this month.

According to the final environmental impact assessment report by Environmental Resources Management for ASB in October 2008, construction on the plant was supposed to start in March 2009 and be completed in April last year. After trial runs, commercial production was slated for a June 2010 start.

When ASB chief executive Tom Uiterwaal was interviewed early last year, he said construction was expected to be completed by the end of last year. He declined to comment when asked about the delays and the company’s latest plans.

A person familiar with the company’s operation, who declined to speak on the record, claimed the project would resume construction within two months, and that biodiesel production was expected to start by the end of next year, but he would not elaborate.

He also declined to comment on talk among industry executives that construction was halted because of a lack of funding due to a deteriorating profit outlook for the biodiesel industry internationally, and tightened liquidity in the wake of the global financial crisis.

According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, only 10 biodiesel plants were operating last year, despite 29 having been built. A lack of overseas demand and high palm oil prices were blamed.

ASB’s project is funded mainly by the Middle East’s Al Salam Bank-Bahrain and six unidentified strategic partners.

Uiterwaal said early last year that the US$100 million plant would use technology from Austria, which enabled it to use multiple feedstocks, including waste cooking oil, grease trap waste collected from caterers, animal fat, and palm fatty acid distillate – a byproduct from the refining of crude palm oil.

ASB last year hired legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, who represents the restaurant trade, as a consultant.

The European Union has led the world in policy support for the sector, requiring at least 5.75 per cent of all fuel sold to be biofuel – biodiesel or ethanol – rising to 8 per cent in 2015 and 10 per cent in 2020.

Within Asia, Hong Kong lags behind countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand, in policy initiatives to encourage biodiesel consumption.

Biodiesel is generally more expensive than petroleum diesel, and requires large-scale production and consumption to be economical. To be truly emission-light, local sourcing of feedstock and local consumption of biodiesel is encouraged.

In some developed nations, restaurants pay biodiesel makers to get rid of waste cooking oil, but in Hong Kong, biodiesel makers have to pay for used oil, competing with traders who sell it to mainland recyclers for reprocessing into cooking oil. Consumption of such re-used oil is known to raise the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Beijing issued a policy circular a year ago ordering local governments to step up their fight against rampant illegal trading and recycling of cooking oil.

“Based on my estimation, over 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s used cooking oil taken away by collectors is sold to the mainland for reprocessing into cooking oil,” said Teddy Choi Wai-hung, executive director of Champway Technology which operates a biodiesel plant in the EcoPark in Tsuen Mun that can produce 20,000 tonnes of biodiesel annually.

Since it is not illegal to export waste cooking oil out of Hong Kong, and extremely difficult to tell reprocessed oil from previously unused oil without laboratory testing, it is difficult to fight the trade, said Choi.

Furthermore the trade is lucrative since used oil costs around HK$4,500 a tonne to buy and can fetch some HK$7,500 after processing. Fresh cooking oil costs anywhere from HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 a tonne, Choi said.

Champway’s plant has only produced around 4,000 tonnes since it started operating in April last year, due to difficulties in sourcing enough affordable waste oil, according to Choi.

“Our operation is very difficult to run, given that waste cooking oil prices have been bid up to over HK$50 per 18 litres currently from just HK$20 a year ago,” he said, adding that it would be difficult to recoup the plant’s HK$60 million investment without more government support.

To encourage proper disposal of waste cooking oil, he said the government should implement a licensing system for collectors of used cooking oil, and restaurants that sell their oil to such authorised dealers should be given a reduction in their waste water treatment surcharge currently collected by the Water Supplies Department.

Steve Choi, an executive director of Sha Tin-based Dynamic Progress International, the first firm in Hong Kong to set up a biodiesel plant three years ago, said the government should abolish an import levy on methanol, which accounts for 11 per cent of the content of biodiesel.

The levy amounts to around 50 HK cents for each litre of biodiesel made, he said. Each litre of petroleum diesel retails for around HK$11 to HK$12.

According to the annual report of its listed parent Alltronics Holdings, Dynamic posted a net loss of HK$6 million last year, down from a HK$8.4 million loss in 2009.

Steve Choi said the government should also be more proactive in promoting biodiesel by becoming a user itself.

“I hope the government would push for an earlier timetable for its departments in becoming biodiesel users,” he said. “The commercial sector has already made some moves, it is about time the government took some baby steps to promote biodiesel usage.”

So far private sector users mainly use biodiesel out of corporate social responsibility considerations as it is more expensive than petroleum diesel.

Asia Airfreight Terminal (AAT), which runs an air cargo terminal at Hong Kong International Airport, started buying biodiesel from Dynamic last November.

“Our company adopted biodiesel mainly for the fulfillment of our corporate social responsibilities,” said Wilson Cheung, AAT’s general manager of support services.

The company, which has a diesel bill of around HK$1.5 million a year, has now replaced almost all of its fossil fuel diesel consumption with biodiesel, except for its stand-by power generator, which is rarely used.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club said it had provided waste oil to Dynamic and bought biodiesel for some of its water-carrying trucks and power generators.

An Environmental Protection Bureau spokesman said the bureau was consolidating views from a public consultation on how to mitigate climate change, including how to promote clean fuels, including biofuels.

The government is also planning a tender for the supply of diesel with a blend of 5 per cent biodiesel made from waste oil, for a one-year pilot scheme. A source familiar with the situation said the government aims to roll out the scheme by mid-2012.

Bag levy has made things worse, industry says

South China Morning Post – 18 July 2011

Manufacturers find overall use of plastic has gone up since introduction of the charge two years ago

The plastic-bag levy introduced two years ago has not helped protect the environment – in fact, the overall use of plastic has risen because of it, according to a manufacturers’ group.

Although the use of conventional plastic bags had been on the decline, that of reusable bags, wrongly thought to have less plastic, had soared, said the Hong Kong Plastic Bags Manufacturers’ Association.

The rise in the use of garbage bags, reusable bags – also called non-woven bags – and free plastic bags used in supermarkets for fruit and vegetables has increased overall plastic use by almost 30 per cent, according to the association’s study.

Its survey of plastic-bag companies last month found that although the use of conventional plastic shopping bags had dropped by about 70 per cent, that of almost all other bags, some wrongly thought to be environmentally friendly, had risen markedly. For instance, the use of garbage bags has increased by more than 60 per cent since the plastic-bag levy came into effect in July 2009.

The association’s vice-president Eric Lau Chi-leung said the increase in garbage bags was probably due to people no longer using plastic shopping bags for their trash, while the use of non-woven bags has almost.

“These so-called environment-friendly, reusable bags are made of plastic. But the government has not done enough to inform the public about this,” Lau said yesterday. “That’s why although we now have had the plastic-bag levy in place for two years, the amount of plastic we have used in bags has in fact increased by 27 per cent,” he said.

“Yes, we have done more business and made more money because of this trend. But we cannot let money blind our care for the environment.”

Reusable bags contain about 30 to 50 times as much plastic as conventional ones, and are more difficult to break down, and hence are more destructive to the environment, he said.

The association urged the government not to raise the current levy of 50 HK cents per bag to maintain its disincentive effect because that would fuel inflation. Lau suggested it should teach people to reuse the plastic bags they had.

A spokesman for the Environment Bureau said that was already being done, and its landfill survey had found that only 0.4 per cent of bags were non-woven ones.

He said 75 per cent of shoppers did not get plastic bags from registered shops, and since the levy most Hongkongers had supported the scheme and taken their own bags when shopping. “We are currently consulting the public on whether to expand the scheme so that a levy will be imposed when shops give away non-woven bags,” he said.

Before the levy’s introduction at 3,000 registered stores, plastic-bag manufacturers had worried that the industry would be hurt. Instead they have found that making reusable bags is more profitable.

Government accused of jumping gun on site sale

South China Morning Post, 18 July 2011

Activists say preparations to sell wing of HQ have started before its future is discussed by planners

Green activists and a conservation group accused the government of treating the Town Planning Board as a rubber stamp and said it had started making preparation to sell the west wing of the Central Government Offices, even though the board was still considering the site’s future.

Campaigners to preserve the government headquarters building said the move showed “sheer disregard for the town planning process and public efforts to preserve the integrity of the historic Government Hill”.

But the Development Bureau said the move was “no more than a preliminary preparation.”

It is not clear if the government had also made preparations to sell other sites before the Town Planning Board made its final decision.

But a former board vice-chairman, Dr Greg Wong Chak-yan, said he had not heard of such a practice before.

The board meets next month to hear a proposal by activists to keeping the Government Hill site intact. It will look at a government plan to demolish the west wing in October.

Town Planning Board member Laurence Li Lu-jen last night refused to comment, saying he wanted to hear both sides of the argument first.

Environmental activist Melanie Moore said she wrote to the authorities asking for trees on the site to be retained. She received a written reply from the government on June 27, in which it said: “As the proposed land sale conditions for the site are still being drafted, we are not in a position to advise on any further details of the conditions.”

Moore believed that indicated that the government had already started to prepare for the sale of the land. She expressed disappointment over the move.

“The government has not released the full result of the November 2010 public consultation,” she said. “After the 1881 Heritage fiasco, the public is tired of government’s pre-ordained deals with property developers to destroy our heritage sites and greenery,” she added, referring to the former Marine Police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, which became a complex of high-end shops and restaurants under a deal with developer Cheung Kong (SEHK: 0001).

Albert Lai Kwong-tak, chairman of lobby group The Professional Commons and a member of the Government Hill Concern Group that is fighting to keep the site intact, accused the government of jumping the gun and treating the Town Planning Board as a rubber stamp.

The group also demanded that the board meeting be chaired by someone who was not a development or planning official, saying it was a potential conflict of interest.

The chairman of the Town Planning Board is permanent secretary for development Thomas Chow Tat-ming, whose bureau is pushing forward the redevelopment plan.

But Greg Wong said he disagreed with Lai. “The board can’t control what the civil servants do. By the same token, what the government is doing internally has no impact on the board members’ decision.”

He said if the case for preserving the west wing was strong, he would support it.