Environment boss comes clean

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 May, 2000, 12:00am

AFTER five months of being Secretary for Environment and Food, Lily Yam Kwan Pui-ying shows signs of feeling the pressure. Animated, enthusiastic, clued-up - she is also clearly frustrated. Other government bureaus and departments with whom she must liaise do not seem to want to know about implementing measures to improve the air and water around us; companies and vested business interests publicly support policies 'in principle' but privately dig their heels in when it comes to doing anything about it; green groups criticise whatever she does; the public says not enough is being done.

'I have been a civil servant for a long time, but in no other area do I feel so isolated, so helpless,' says Ms Yam, 53, sitting in her Citibank Tower office overlooking Hong Kong Park. Comments on the green view draw a laugh and the remark that she 'never has time to look out of the window'. She also jokes that the flat she shares with her husband is 'falling apart' because she never has time to look after it. Others say she frequently works until midnight trying to work out the complexities of how to deal with sulphur dioxide and dioxin, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and diesel, taxi drivers and oil companies.

'I will never be able to satisfy my critics. First of all, it is that nothing is being done. When you come up with something they say 'too little, too late'. And when you come up with more they say 'still, too late. When can we see the effect?',' she says, in an interview with the Post. 'We have a situation where . . . a lot of demands are put on the Government. Why doesn't it do this, why doesn't it do that, why doesn't it pay out more? . . . [But] I don't have anything to hand out or to give away.' Mrs Yam was propelled into a high-profile job when she took over the new Environment and Food Bureau. It has come under fire for the poor standard of food hygiene in Hong Kong and, most of all, for the SAR's record air pollution on March 29 when the air pollution index rose to 174 in Central - meaning that the air was 74 per cent over the Government's acceptable limit. The culprits have been identified as diesel vehicles which release pollutants including dust particles into the air that clog the lungs and cause respiratory illness and cancer. So Mrs Yam's main initial effort has been directed into the programme to switch diesel vehicles to using cleaner LPG fuel, starting with Hong Kong's 18,000 taxis.

And of course she has drawn a very short straw. Despite efforts by the Environmental Protection Department to replace diesel with petrol five years ago - which were shot down by legislators worried about the financial effect on the transport sector - little had been done to improve worsening air until Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa spoke about the environment in his Policy Address last October. After years of frustrated citizens and green groups pointing to the brown smog building across the harbour and rising air pollution figures, suddenly a sense of crisis has developed which the public looks to Mrs Yam to solve, and quickly.

Behind the air problem loom other potential crises such as water, sewage and reduction and recycling of waste: 'Issues that are not particularly attractive to the man in the street,' she says.

A civil servant since she was 23, Mrs Yam was Commissioner for Transport and Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) before being moved to this role. There is little to indicate a passion for the environment, and she says she would not class herself as an idealist or environmentalist. Before her appointment, other government servants said privately that they would prefer any job to this thankless task. So was she pushed into it? She says no, but adds: 'Fighting corruption I can't say is easier, but getting people on your side is easier because everyone can see it's a crime.' She spent six years in community relations at the ICAC from 1978-84. 'We started off with awareness. There was a time when people would say 'what has corruption to do with me?' [Now for the environment] you have to do the same thing . . . Where does public responsibility come into play?' She points to the LPG switch. The community says it is too slow. To speed it up, LPG filling stations need to be supplied quicker, but safety requirements mean only a few sites are suitable. However, district councils have proved awkward in approving sites for such unattractive amenities. 'It's not easy to get a proposal through - a waste treatment facility, a sewage treatment facility, is unlike a park, or a library, indoor games centre, swimming pool and so on.' Then, she says, the oil companies have proved awkward in negotiations over adapting petrol stations to handle LPG - the quickest way to provide a Hong Kong-wide network. 'We have encountered a great deal of difficulty in our negotiations with oil companies. The company that has the largest number of filling sites [reported to be Shell] is just not budging. Very soon our discussions with oil companies have to be concluded. We can't drag on for ever.' If Shell and Caltex will not assist, the Government is prepared to set aside more sites without land premium for such stations. It has already done this for five sites which the administration expects to make available by the end of this year. But re-zoning, further discussions with district councils and establishing the station hardware will take months. 'This is just the reality that we are facing every day. And that applies to just one very basic thing.' Now taxi owners are asking that enough filling stations be available so that all drivers can end their shifts and fill up their tanks at the same time. And about 10 per cent of drivers - up to 2,000 people - also claim that a one-off grant of $40,000 against the $200,000 price of a taxi, and savings of about $45,000 a year in running costs because LPG will be much cheaper than diesel, will not be enough.

'I think a line must be drawn somewhere. Everybody talks about polluter pays. It's not good enough for people to say 'we support all this in principle'. When it comes to the crunch, to implementing a particular measure, are we prepared to translate the in-principle support to making difficult decisions in favour of the environment?' To persuade the public to take more responsibility, she aims to produce leaflets explaining policy decisions together with ideas on what individuals can do to help. 'I guess it's a matter of priorities - how to get people to appreciate that the best things in life are free.' But her other problems are closer to home - negotiating with other government departments which similarly spout the right words, but are less keen to implement environment-saving measures. Mrs Yam intends to call their bluff by setting up an Air Pollution Control Taskforce which will comprise policy secretaries or other senior staff from transport, finance, economic services, planning and lands, and the director of the Environmental Protection Department.

But she is clearly happier with details than grand ideas - she says she wants to understand everything fully, and she reels off reams of figures, perhaps the result of an exhausting three-hour discussion with the Legislative Council earlier in the day. Asked what she hopes to achieve within a year or so, she has no big picture thoughts but instead lists current measures in progress, such as having ultra-low sulphur diesel available, getting the cross-border group up and running, and having LPG widely used - noting that she has yet to persuade Legco to grant the necessary funds to do this. 'Even if we don't have any visible improvement [in a year's time], we can start feeling the improvement at the roadside.' And perhaps, if the frustrations and the uphill struggles remain daunting at that time, she might not stay around for much longer than that. 'I am at that stage of my career where I feel that I have had a good innings and I do it because of the challenge. And if I can continue to be of use . . . I will continue to work, but if I feel that I'm not making much of a contribution . . . I tell you, I would have no hesitation in leaving the service.'