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February, 2015:

Shek Kwu Chau incinerator proposal reflects worry over government power abuse

29 January, 2015

Comment›Insight & Opinion

Tom Yam

Should a government department regulate itself? To take a specific example, should the Environmental Protection Department propose an infrastructure project that has an impact on the environment, evaluate the environmental effects of that project, then approve the project as environmentally sound?

This is essentially the question before the Court of Final Appeal in a case concerning the department’s proposal to build the world’s most expensive incinerator off the island of Shek Kwu Chau. Wearing three hats as advocate, assessor and approver, the department’s director, Anissa Wong Sean-yee, has taken the incinerator project through all three processes.

The department has championed the incinerator for 15 years, despite significant local opposition. Its assistant director Elvis Au applied for an environmental permit. Another of its officers, then assistant director Tse Chin-wan, with the help of consultants engaged by the department, managed the environmental impact assessment, resulting in the approval of its report by the department and the issuance of the statutory environmental permit.

The court is now considering whether the department’s director has the power to approve the impact assessment report, prepared and submitted on her behalf, and grant the permit to herself. If the court decides she has this power, the department can proceed with the project. If not, the environmental permit will be invalidated and another impact assessment study will have to be conducted.

The issue goes to the heart of whether it is in the public interest for a government agency to police itself. It raises concerns about the vested interests of bureaucrats versus the rightful interest of citizens in minimising the risks to their health and environment.

The proposed incinerator, opponents say, will use polluting technology, produce toxic ash, disrupt the marine habitat, despoil a pristine island and destroy rather than protect the environment. But how impartial can an environmental protection official be in assessing a project which he has proposed, in which he has invested years of his career?

The self-regulation issue is related to the larger question of how major infrastructure projects in Hong Kong are conceived, analysed, evaluated and approved. In many cases, it appears that insufficient due diligence was done by professionals independent of the government agency proposing the project. Consultants are often hired to produce “the right answer” rather than an objective assessment; those who rely on government contracts will please the client rather than jeopardise future business. Such self-regulation enables government departments to release minimal information on the rationale, impact, financial and operational details of a project.

The Development Bureau’s reclamation plans for the East Lantau Metropolis is an example. The justification for such a colossal development, such as population, housing and transport needs, has neither been established nor quantified. Yet the bureau
intends to request HK$226.9 m
illion to explore building artificial islands in the waters between Hong Kong and Lantau islands.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Why aren’t Hong Kong’s environmental officers protecting the environment?

03 February, 2015


The Finance Committee’s vote to approve the funding for the integrated waste management facility off Shek Kwu Chau will have a serious impact on one of Hong Kong’s lesser known and vulnerable mammals, the finless porpoise, jeopardising the future of this threatened species.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, the undersecretary for the environment, and Mr Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department, are both strong proponents for the construction of the mega incinerator. Conversely and somewhat puzzlingly, both are members of the steering committee for the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan; Loh holds a prominent position as vice-chairwoman, and Au attends as a representative of the Environmental Protection Department.

It is astonishing to find these two high-ranking civil servants holding opposing positions with fundamental conflicts of interest. On the one hand, they are responsible for the proposed destruction of the marine environment while, on the other, they serve as entrusted guardians and advisers for Hong Kong’s nature conservation and biodiversity.

The environmental impact assessment report for the incinerator clearly confirms from the survey maps of the west coast of Shek Kwu Chau (south of Lantau Island) that this is an extremely important habitat hotspot for the finless porpoise. It is therefore mystifying that officers can miss the key material facts in the data and propose to construct the incinerator at the exact same marine location, thus obliterating the primary habitat of the finless porpoise.

Why bother carrying out the lengthy process of the environmental impact assessment and public consultation, if this core factual evidence is then completely ignored?

In their privileged position as public servants and members of the steering committee for Hong Kong’s biodiversity plan, one would think they would show unquestionable, ethical and integral commitment to protect the finless porpoise by creating a marine park and not allowing a repeat of the currently unfolding tragedy happening to the habitat of the pink dolphins.

Responsible societies show unequivocal resolve, empathy and respect for their biodiversity, ensuring a green heritage for future generations, so why not Hong Kong? Or will the Hong Kong government continue to deceive us with meaningless conservation policies and which will continue to eradicate our precious irreplaceable biodiversity?

I would request Christine Loh and Elvis Au explain their fundamental conflicts of interest.

Paul Melsom, Lantau