Sarah Liao calls for higher sewage charge to clean up harbour
Environment minister says new rate will be affordable
The environment minister has asked the public to pay a 'modest' increase of 9.3 per cent in sewage charges in each of the next 10 years if they want a clean harbour that is suitable for swimming.
The proposed increase, aimed at reducing the government subsidy of sewage treatment costs from the present 46 to 20 per cent, would push an average household's sewage payment from HK$11 a month to HK$27 by 2017. The rate would gradually increase from the current HK$1.20 a cubic metre of water consumed to HK$2.90 in 10 years.
Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung described the proposed annual rise as 'gradual and affordable', but admitted that the government's long-term policy was full cost recovery under the 'polluter pays' principle. Under this scheme, by 2016/17 the recovery rate will be 79.6 per cent, according to the Environmental Protection Department.
The sewage charge rate, based on the level of water consumption, has not been reviewed since it was introduced in 1995. The fee rise will hinge on support by legislators who will scrutinise the proposal in March. Dr Liao warned that, without political support, the harbour clean-up plan might be stalled.
Officials claimed the fee rise would improve harbour water quality to the extent that the abandoned annual cross-harbour swim could be resumed and closed beaches in the Tsuen Wan area reopened.
The harbour cleanup plan involves building a deep tunnel to channel wastewater from northern Hong Kong Island to the treatment facility on Stonecutters Island and disinfecting it before discharge.
The money collected from the higher charges would be used to finance the operating costs of the HK$8-billion cleanup plan and new treatment facilities outside the harbour area, with the government bearing the capital costs.
But the plan has drawn opposition from heavy users such as restaurateurs, who pay a trade effluent surcharge in addition to the sewage charge.
Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, a legislator representing the catering sector, said he would object to the proposal, saying the charging system had always been biased against restaurants. 'It's like rubbing salt in the wound,' he said.
Hsin Kwong Restaurant Holdings managing director Thomas Woo Chu said the increase would cost him tens of thousands of dollars a year. 'We cannot cut rentals or electricity fees, while we might be forced to save on wages. This will mean many workers will have no pay rise,' he said.
Alan Leong Kah-kit, from the Civic Party, said they 'accepted in principle' the proposal and described the 10-year fee adjustment programme as 'not unreasonable'.
Democrat Sin Chung-kai said his party backed the polluter-pay principle but wanted the proposal to incorporate measures to relieve the burden of low-income groups.