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Officials’ irrational decision-making to blame for delay in incinerator plans


Tom Yam says officials have only themselves to blame for the delay in incinerator plans – their choice of location fails an objective assessment

May 03, 2012

Legislators should be applauded for withholding support for a HK$15 billion waste incinerator to be built on Shek Kwu Chau, leaving the issue to incoming chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration. The current administration has clearly botched the job.

Many would agree with the government that incineration is part of the solution to Hong Kong’s waste disposal problem, but where to put the incinerator? The Environmental Protection Department decided it should be built on Shek Kwu Chau, and cast local opposition as “not in my neighbourhood” resistance by residents in the vicinity. In fact, the real issue is the department’s unprofessional and indefensible decision-making that led to the selection of a site in an ecologically sensitive area, instead of an existing industrial zone – the Tsang Tsui ash lagoons in Tuen Mun.

The department failed to make an objective analysis and comprehensive comparison of the two sites. Its documents and presentations are biased towards its selection, describing only the advantages of Shek Kwu Chau. Any unbiased comparison clearly shows Tsang Tsui to be the better choice for environmental, economic and technical reasons.

Two consultants engaged by the department studied the feasibility of both sites under 20 criteria. It’s easy even for a layman to see from their reports that Tsang Tsui is the better site in 12 criteria: engineering, technical and economic, less ecological impact, more efficient land use.

Only one factor favours Shek Kwu Chau: lower transport costs.

Both sites were rated the same under the four criteria of air quality, noise, landscape and hazard. The department provided no information for one criterion (operational cost), another was irrelevant (land ownership) and the remaining one was not addressed (community impact on Tuen Mun, Cheung Chau and South Lantau).

Construction of an incinerator in Tsang Tsui would cost 26 per cent less than in Shek Kwu Chau (in 2011 prices) and be completed two years earlier. Massive land reclamation, seabed dredging and cable laying would be required to create the infrastructure in Shek Kwu Chau and this would have a severe impact on fisheries and wildlife habitats. In contrast, the site in Tsang Tsui is ready in situ among existing waste treatment facilities. Its location offers land and sea routes for transporting waste to the incinerator and removing ash to the nearby landfill.

In spite of Tsang Tsui’s clear advantages, the department belatedly introduced a new criterion, “balanced spatial distribution”, as the key reason for choosing Shek Kwu Chau. In other words, since Tuen Mun already has waste treatment facilities, we should spread the problem around the rest of Hong Kong.

This is precisely what Lau Wong-fat, Heung Yee Kuk chairman and Tuen Mun district councillor, said in January 2008, the day after the consultants hired by the department issued a report giving Tuen Mun the highest rating as an incinerator site. Lau was reported to have said: “We already have a power plant and landfills. Why can’t they pick another spot for the incinerator?” Four years later, the Environmental Protection Department did exactly that.

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

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