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Air quality will make or break airport’s hopes for third runway


Howard Winn
Jun 13, 2012

If the Airport Authority thought getting environmental approvals for its proposed third runway was going to be a breeze, it must have had a rude shock when its project profile was knocked back by the Environmental Protection Department.

Following comments from the public, the department has asked the authority to be more specific about the kinds of air pollutants it is going to consider in the environmental impact assessment (EIA). The concern is that the authority might decide, for example, not to consider the impact on health of the most seriously polluting emissions while focusing more on less harmful emissions. In their submissions to the department, the green groups said more clarity was needed.

The green groups learned a bitter lesson following the failure of the judicial review of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge. The judge said comments had to be made before the EIA was started rather than afterwards. As a result, green groups have never applied so much effort in scrutinising a project profile as they have for the third runway.

The bridge episode also led to a lack of public trust in the EIA process. The department is mistrusted because it is conflicted by having a director who is charged with assessing the environmental impact and is at the same time the permanent head of the department that is charged with doing what the government wants.

The department has already been thwarted recently, with its plans for the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator shelved. It now wants to be seen to be doing the right thing with regard to the airport. Hence its speedy response to criticism during the consultation process. The authority, having got rapid approval for the third runway, initially said nothing when the Legco environmental panel asked it to undertake a social return on investment study, a strategic impact study and a carbon inventory.

However, having pledged to become the greenest airport in the world, it found itself in a potentially embarrassing position, with the green groups threatening not to participate in its focus groups unless it complied. It has now agreed to look into this. But the biggest problem it faces in getting approval for its EIA is air quality. Hong Kong’s background air quality is so close to the government’s air quality limits that further infrastructure is impossible without either breaking the limits or taking old and dirty diesel engines off the roads.

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