Persistent polluters must learn crime doesn't pay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 12:00am

Whether it's the filth in our harbour, the choking fumes which cloud the air or the ear-splitting sound of jackhammers late at night, Hong Kong's environmental problems are difficult to avoid. But for the persistent polluters responsible, escaping meaningful punishment appears to be all too easy.

As we report today, prominent construction companies have breached the laws intended to protect our environment with alarming regularity. The fines they have received are so pitiful they amount to little more than loose change to the contractors, some of whom have run up more than 30 convictions in less than four years. And joining the ranks of Hong Kong's serial despoilers has proved to be no impediment to being awarded lucrative government contracts worth billions of dollars. It creates a situation in which the polluter pays - but not very much.

If we are to clean up our city and make it more appealing to residents, overseas investors and tourists alike, then there has to be an effective deterrent. This is only achieved if the laws passed to control pollution are properly enforced and if the penalties for those that breach them are tough enough to make them think twice.

The figures obtained from the Environmental Protection Department show that this is not the case. While a fine of between $10,000 and $20,000 may be appropriate for a first offender, it is quite inadequate for a company that has clocked up more than 20 convictions in the past few years. Even the imposition of a $100,000 penalty, half the maximum available, is hardly a deterrent when you consider the company responsible had 30 previous convictions for similar noise pollution offences and last year recorded a turnover of more than $1.3 billion.

If the culprits were committing street robberies or shop thefts with such impunity, severe penalties would quickly be imposed. There is no reason why the same principle should not apply to those who rob us of a clean, peaceful environment.

This has not been lost on the EPD, responsible for enforcing the law. In April, new guidelines were introduced that will bar companies with five or more convictions in the past 12 months from tendering for government contracts. This is a welcome step and it should be strictly enforced. Amendments to some of the pollution laws to allow courts to jail directors for repeated breaches were made this month and will come into force once a code of practice has been drafted. The threat of a spell in the cells should focus the minds of errant contractors.

But the sentences actually imposed will be a matter for the courts. If magistrates are accustomed to imposing lenient fines, or are doing so because this is in accordance with legal precedents, then perhaps new sentencing guidelines are needed. The government should consider appealing against the next light sentence, and taking the opportunity to ask the higher court to set new standards.

But the end result is only part of the problem. An overhaul of the system could prove beneficial, dealing with enforcement and responsibility, as well as the punishment meted out. This would help protect the companies and the public.

One of the problems with the way the system works is that it is the main contractors rather than developers, sub-contractors or even workmen who are held responsible. This has meant convicting companies that did not actually create any pollution. It is hardly surprising that many of the companies concerned blame their business partners for breaches of the law. A better approach would enable the actual polluter to be punished, while keeping the pressure on all involved to keep within the law.

Creating a cleaner environment should be a priority as we move ahead after Sars. This will only be achieved if we make the polluter pay.