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Impact assessment in need of review

South China Morning Post – 22 July 2011

Striking a balance between the needs for development and environmental protection is not easy. In a city where development is synonymous with progress, conservation has always been a difficult course to champion, until a law was put in place to mandate all projects to undergo green impact studies 13 years ago. Over the years, the mechanism is thought to have been working well, until recently when there have been growing signs that a fundamental review is necessary.

Green activists often joked that the environmental impact assessment reports are “invincible” in that they are compiled, tabled, discussed but never rejected. If there is any truth in it, it is hardly a joke. A news report in this paper has rung the alarm bell that the director of environmental protection has only rejected seven – or less than 4 per cent – of the 196 cases handled since 1998. Critics may find this hardly surprising, as the majority of them are government projects which appear to be just rubber stamped as a matter of formality.

The head of the Advisory Council on the Environment, which helps scrutinise the assessment reports, argues that most studies have been endorsed because the concerns raised during the process had been addressed in the final report. It will be less worrying if this is the case. But the expert also agrees to the need for more international experts to help, saying fellow members find it difficult to comment on technical issues. The suggestion, coming from someone with first-hand experience, is worth considering further.

The activists have also rightly challenged if the director has the professional knowledge in approving the studies. Unlike the previous one who was an environmental scientist, a top bureaucrat also acts as the director, raising doubts if she has the expertise in discharging the power under the law.

Concerns over the independence and professionalism of the consultants commissioned by the developers should also be taken seriously. More than one-third of the 196 studies were done by one of the three key consultancy groups in the market. While there is no evidence to suggest they are paid to distort the studies to suit their clients’ need, the lack of an independent panel to monitor their qualifications would inevitably undermine confidence in their work.

Sadly, officials are still dodging a review pending a court appeal over the bridge project across the Pearl River Delta. The judge has ruled that the director of environmental protection had no power to approve the impact assessment reports in the absence of separate analysis of likely environmental conditions if the projects were not built. While the appeal is now a matter for the court to decide, there is no reason why the public should stop debating other perceived inadequacies in the mechanism.

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