Advance sewage fees called a 'blank cheque'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am

The government came under fire yesterday for proposing to collect advance sewage charges before completion of multibillion-dollar treatment works to clean up the harbour - described by one academic as an 'unwarranted blank cheque'.

Environmental officials want to increase charges from an average HK$11 a month to HK$26.80 between now and 2016. The money would be used to finance the operation of up to 41 projects, including the massive Harbour Area Treatment Scheme.

These projects, costing HK$20.2 billion to construct, are expected to come into operation separately from next year to 2016 and incur an annual running cost of HK$903 million.

But none of the funding has been approved by the Legislative Council because an argument over the timing of an upgrade to biological treatment at the Stonecutters works remains unsettled.

'No one will benefit from this except the government's pockets,' industrial-sector legislator Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen told a meeting of a legislature subcommittee. 'The revenue is nothing compared to our booming fiscal surplus. But it means a lot to business operators.'

University of Hong Kong engineering professor Albert Koenig, who also was a member of an international review panel on sewage projects in 2000, described the fee rise proposal as an 'unwarranted blank cheque'.

'It appears highly unusual to ask for approval of sewage charges in advance of completion of projects not even vetted yet,' he said in a submission to the committee.

Officials say the projects would restore the harbour water quality to a stage where the annual cross-harbour swim - abandoned in 1978 because of pollution - could resume.

But the fee rise would have an impact on more than 2 million households and businesses.

Defending the proposal, deputy director of environmental protection Raymond Fan Wai-ming said all 41 projects were necessary and would go ahead in the next 10 years.

While the government would continue to bear the capital costs of all sewage projects, it already had been subsidising the running costs of existing facilities by more than 40 per cent, he said. The objective, in line with the polluter-pays principle, is to increase the overall recovery rate to around 80 per cent by 2017.

'A gradual charge rise will not lead to huge fluctuation year on year and it can give certainty to business planning,' he said.

The stage one project, which came into operation at Stonecutters in 2001, uses chemicals to treat 75 per cent of sewage from the harbourfront. It removes up to 80 per cent of pollutants but most bacteria and nutrients remain in the effluent.