Another two trees feared to be unsafe
Joyce Ng and Thomas Chan
Two old trees next to the one that fell onto a bus shelter in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui's shopping district on Thursday night are also diseased and may have to be chopped down, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said yesterday.
But experts questioned whether officials were doing enough to check the Chinese banyan trees, which are listed on the register of old and valuable trees, as it emerged the government knew more than a year ago that the tree that fell was suffering from 'brown root-rot disease'.
Speaking after visiting the Park Lane Shoppers' Boulevard, where Thursday's accident injured five people, Lam said the two trees that shared a planter with the tree that fell might have to be chopped down to ensure pedestrian safety.
'Because they grow on the same planter, if the soil is infected, there's a high chance the trees are also infected. An expert panel will meet immediately to see if any follow-up work has to be done on these two trees, including removal. To put pedestrian safety first, if there's a need, we may have to [remove them],' Lam said.
The century-old, 14-metre tree that collapsed injured four women and a man. They were taken to hospital although none of the injuries were life threatening.
The tree that collapsed, tree No8 was the fourth to fall victim to disease on Park Lane. Tree Nos 9 and 10, which shared the same planter as No8, and No31, on the other side of the road, were cut down between 2008 and last year to prevent them from falling.
Lam confirmed that tree No8 was suffering from brown root-rot - a fungus that eats away at the roots - and the government had known about the condition since tree No10 was felled. But she said its condition had not been considered to be serious, and an inspector from Taiwan had said last year and in 2010 that the tree could be cured by cutting away the infected parts. The Tree Management Office's expert panel had also looked at ways to create space for the tree to continue to grow, she added.
But Ken So Kwok-yin, head of the Conservancy Association, said Lam failed to clarify what her colleagues did to keep the tree in place.
And Chiu Siu-wai, a professor in biology at Chinese University, said the tree could have been saved if proper care and pesticide had been used.
Chiu said she informed the government in December 2010, as soon as she spotted the infection.
'There are pesticides able to control and kill the fungi, but I suspect the pesticide was not used at the right place. It's no use to just spray it on the bark because the problems lie in the tree base and the roots,' she said.
Chiu said half of the 36 listed trees on that part of Nathan Road were ill. For example, the ones near the mosque were plagued with fungi or wood-boring bugs.
Lam said the Tree Management Office would conduct a comprehensive check of the trees in the area.
Officials had considered widening the planters to give the trees more space, but the ground below was full of electrical wires, water pipes and gas pipes from eight organisations, said Lawrence Chau Kam-chiu, head of the Tree Management Office.
'We will have to work with the organisations to rearrange the alignment of these utilities, and liaise with the district council,' Chau said.
Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Hui Tak-leung said the council had urged the government to solve the planter problem, but 'officials only said they would conduct a detailed study and never came back'.
A spokeswoman for CLP Power said the company would be willing to work with the government on any proposal to protect the trees.
Professor Jim Chi-yung, a tree expert at the University of Hong Kong, said it was too late to remove the planters to save the trees now, but it would help to widen the tree path for new growth.