The Strange Workings of the Hong Kong Government
By Mark Parlett
In this day and age how could a government decide that the only solution to its escalating waste problems is not to recycle but to despoil one of its few areas of natural beauty by building a mammoth waste incinerator right in the middle of it?
This is not even because, despite Hong Kong’s legendary lack of space, there are no alternatives. There is an alternative site in an already denuded area that would be quicker and probably cheaper (we will come to that later) to build.
It is also next to an existing facility to process the residual ash and a power station for connecting the power generated into the grid.
The two sites in question are Tsang Tsui Ash lagoons, an industrial site to the north of Tsuen Mun and Shek Kwu Chau an unspoilt island lying between Lantau and Cheung Chau facing Lantau’s beautiful holiday beaches.
So what is their reasoning? The corner stone of their argument is the unique concept of “geographical balance” as proposed by the secretary for the environment Mr. Edward Yau Tang-wah.
This unusual idea is that having despoiled large parts of the territory already it is only “fair” to go and despoil the rest of it so that everybody in Hong Kong suffers equally.
By the same logic Tokyo municipal authorities, who the Hong Kong officials have visited, would have built their incinerator in the Kamakura resort area rather than on the already denuded industrial sight in Tokyo bay they did choose.
Then the second argument is that SKC is slightly closer to the refuse transfer stations in Kowloon and Hong Kong even claiming this will reduce the carbon foot print of the scheme.
However in order to make this appear significant they had to include an unsubstantiated amount of extra land transportation for Tsang Tsui.
Other arguments include proximity to “major” population clusters. Apparently the people of Chung Chau and Southern Lantau do not constitute a “major” population cluster where as the people of Tsuen Mun do.
But then in the same paragraph the EPD is quick to point out that there won’t be any harmful emissions anyway.
So if the second point is true then it should not matter if the incinerator was placed in central Hong Kong?
In short if the incinerator does generate hazardous emissions then it does not matter if it endangers the health of ten or ten thousand people both are equally un-acceptable. And if it is not hazardous then it doesn’t matter how close it is, to however many people.
While denying that there will be any emissions they point out that the prevailing wind for most of the year blows out to sea at SKC this in fact is true for both sites.
However for three months of the year this is reversed (Hong Kong observatory data) then the non- existent emissions will be blown directly in to the houses of the pore residents of Cheung Chau.
In the case TTAL however there is one of Hong Kong’s highest peaks between the site and the nearest downwind population centre of Tsuen Mun.
The final argument is one of “economic synergy” in the sense that the building and operation of the incinerator will provide some economic benefit to the residence of Cheung Chau.
Naturally the residents of Tsang Tsui would receive the same benefits so this argument could favour either site. Oddly neither the residents of Cheung Chua nor Tsang Tsui appear to be rushing to receive this huge economic windfall.
This is the extent of the governments published reasoning, there are however quite a few omissions from this.
The first of these is that all of the above was carried out without any knowledge or consideration of cost.
A spokesman for the EPD said that full costs for SKC will be available by the end of this year. But when pushed over would the full costs for the alternative TTAL site also be available he could not categorically confirm they would.
So the decision has been made in complete disregard of the relevant costs. I guess something only a government with bulging coffers such as ours can do.
Independent estimates vary between 33% and 300% more expensive to use SKC rather TTAL.
Another factor that did not apparently merit consideration is that according to the EPDs own estimates building at SKC will take at least 2 years longer to build which is two years after the capacity of all existing landfill will be exhausted.
Despite being the environmental protection agency they admit that the reclamation needed for the SKC site will cause loss of habitat and endanger the lives of the finless Porpoises that inhabit the area but deem this as acceptable without mentioning there would be no loss of habitat or damage to rare species if they chose TTAL instead.
Nor is there any mention of the negative economic impact on the tourist industry as the facility would be clearly visible from all the beaches of South Lantau.
So why has the government done such a shabby job of managing the waste issues in the first place and then if it is inevitable that Hong Kong has to have an incinerator choosing such a inappropriate site for it?
The first is a much bigger question requiring a lot more space than available here. For the second, one clue may lie in the wording of some of the documents regarding the super incinerator (Integrated waste management facility).
In many documents but by no means all the EPD refer to this as Hong Kong’s first Integrated Waste Management Facility. Normally if the need was so urgent one would have thought you would build the first one in fastest most economical site in order to avoid the issue of two years of overflowing landfill.
That would be unless you considered the demography of the two proposed sites.
The nearest village to TTAL is Lung Kwu Tan a small and insignificant place apart from it is the home village of one Lau Wong-Fat head of the Heung Yee Kuk and head of the Tsuen Mun rural committee.
In other words they already know that they will have to build on both sites and rather than tackle such a powerful political opponent to start with they prefer to attack what they believe to be an easier target, the less well represented outlying islanders.
Then when they have got that past, present the second incinerator as an inevitable fait a complete to the residents of Tsuen Mun.
Funny how governments work.