Superjail is doomed by lack of options, security chiefs are told
An environmental planning expert says the choice of Hei Ling Chau for the complex suffers a fundamental flaw
Security officials are being warned that the controversial $12 billion superjail proposal might fail to obtain environmental and community approval because of a fundamental planning flaw.
The warning came after last Friday's decision by legislators to split the funding for the feasibility study into building the prison on Hei Ling Chau.
It has been 29 months since the project was first raised in Legco. The prolonged debate had dwelt mainly on the security aspects of the radical shake-up of the prison system. But the issue has shifted recently when green groups strongly protested against the plan to put the jail complex on Hei Ling Chau, off Lantau.
Ng Cho-nam, who teaches environmental impact assessment at the University of Hong Kong's Geography Department, said the government could have avoided the debate with green groups had it thoroughly considered the environmental issues in the early stages of site selection.
'The problem now is that the government does not have any statistics to convince us that Hei Ling Chau is the best choice from an environmental point of view,' he said.
According to Professor Ng, environmental impact assessment laws require a project proponent to study and compare the environmental impact of the project on different sites. He said the $7 million preliminary feasibility study Legco approved for the jail proposal last week should include such a comparative study. Otherwise, the government risked repeating the Long Valley debacle.
In 1999, the KCRC unveiled plans to build its Lok Ma Chau line across Long Valley's wetlands. But this was dropped after it failed to win government approval on environmental grounds. It now plans to build a 7km rail tunnel in the valley.
Hei Ling Chau and Kong Nga Po, near the border, were shortlisted for the superjail project by the government in 2001 because they were large enough, developable and met a list of nine criteria.
In comparing the two sites, officials look into their operational effectiveness, planning, environment and other considerations.
The Security Bureau only pointed out briefly in a document presented to legislators in June 2001 that Hei Ling Chau and Sunshine Island were proposed for conservation in an official study due to the islands' ecologically important habitats and valuable natural landscape. It said reclamation might compromise the conservation.
In July last year, Hei Ling Chau was picked as the government said the island had 'less potential for alternative development in the long run from an overall planning point of view' than Kong Nga Po, which is one of the areas covered in the 'Hong Kong 2030' planning study.
But a bridge needed to be built between Hei Ling Chau and Lantau for operational and emergency reasons, while reclamation was necessary for the prison site.
The location of the proposed prison hardly figured in the debates of the Legco's security panel when it took up the proposal.
Instead, legislators were more concerned about whether the scale of the project would pose security and management problems in future.
The government later backed down, cutting by half its original proposal to build a $28 billion, 120-hectare jail for 15,000 inmates.
The scaled-down proposal will provide 7,220 places and bring the total Hong Kong prison capacity to 13,860. It will replace eight of the existing 24 prisons, putting real estate worth billions of dollars on to the market.
The chairman of Legco's security panel, Lau Kong-wah, said he did not anticipate environmental concerns to pose a big problem to the construction of the superjail.
'The green groups usually have many opinions on many development projects. But we must adopt a practical approach. We respect their views, but we have to balance other concerns like security and cost-effectiveness,' Mr Lau said.
If the project is given the green light, construction is expected to start in 2006 and be completed in 2012.
The government said the complex would ease the overcrowding at Hong Kong's prisons.
The sheer size of the superjail would also ensure a significant economy of scale, allowing the government to cut operational and manpower costs.