Choice of remote island for incinerator enrages critics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 2011, 12:00am

Environmental officials have picked a remote outlying island for a controversial mega-incinerator to dispose of Hong Kong's mounting waste.

But critics say building it there will cost more, take longer and cause more environmental damage than the other potential location.

In choosing Shek Kwu Chau, about six kilometres south of Lantau, officials passed over a more widely expected site at Tsang Tsui in Tuen Mun.

Critics immediately said the government wanted to avoid a bruising fight with residents who live in and round Tuen Mun and politicians who would strenuously object to an incinerator capable of burning 3,000 tonnes of waste a day in an area that already has a landfill.

As environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah announced the long-awaited selection yesterday, an environmental impact assessment report was released for public consultation.

The selection process has been a flashpoint issue since the sites were shortlisted in 2008. Concerns were heightened when a plan to expand the Tseung Kwan O landfill was rejected by lawmakers last year.

The environmental impact report released yesterday did little to resolve the controversies, however. It refrains from saying if Shek Kwu Chau or Tsang Tsui is the more acceptable choice on environmental grounds.

It concludes that both sites comply with all environmental standards, leaving it largely for government officials to decide which to pick.

Yau said the island was favoured because it would create a more balanced distribution of waste facilities throughout the city. And because it is closer to existing refuse transfer facilities in the urban area, waste transport trips would be shorter.

'Shek Kwu Chau is further away from major population centres,' Yau said, 'so the accumulated environmental effect will be less.'

Tsang Tsui, on the far western tip of the New Territories, is located next to the city's largest landfill and close to a power generation plant and transmission grid. It also has enough land for immediate construction of an incinerator by 2016. That will be badly needed to handle the city's mounting waste crisis, officials say, because all landfills will be full by 2018.

On the island, however, up to 16 hectares of land will have to be reclaimed from the sea for the construction. Because of that, the incinerator can only be completed two years later - in 2018.

In addition, extra power cables will have to be laid in the seabed between the island and Cheung Sha to transmit the electricity generated from the incineration process.

Officials refused to say how much more it would cost to build the incinerator on the island compared with Tsang Tsui.

In order to mitigate the harm to marine habitats, whose denizens include the protected finless porpoise, the government proposes setting up a 700-hectare marine park between the Soko Islands and Shek Kwu Chau.

Ng Cho-nam, a former environment adviser to the government, said the choice was clearly a political decision that spared officials from repeating the disruption to its plan to expand the Tseung Kwan O landfill last year. 'They just want to avoid being defeated if they opt for the Tsang Tsui site,' Ng said.

'But in doing so, they might have to sacrifice the integrity of the environmental impact assessment process.'

Ng said it was apparent that the Tsang Tsui site was the more environmentally acceptable choice, as it would cause much less ecological damage, but for unknown reasons the impact study was unable even to tell which site was superior in technical terms.

Man Chi-sum, chief executive officer of Green Power, said the government had cleverly reserved the Tuen Mun site for the next round of incineration expansion.

'Officials have picked an easier one in the first place and if they succeed there they can move on to build another one in Tuen Mun,' Man said. 'But if they now go for the difficult one, they might end up having just one incinerator built.'

Clive Noffke, from Green Lantau Association, said he very disappointed by the decision and suspected that politics was behind it.

'Tsang Tsui has land, power grid, places for ash disposal but no ecology. No doubt, it is an obvious choice.'

Noffke said previous planning blueprints had long shown the South Lantau region as a conservation area; siting an incinerator there ran counter to that.

Chau Shue-ying, a Tuen Mun district councillor, welcomed the selection. 'The waste problem is a responsibility for each district and everyone in Hong Kong,' she said. But she was still worried that officials would pick Tuen Mun for a second incinerator.

Audrey Eu Yu-mee, a Civic Party lawmaker, also described the choice as heavily political.

'The government dares not build in Tuen Mun to avoid criticism,' she said. 'But this facility [on Shek Kwu Chau] is deemed to be insufficient to handle the waste generated by the city. So the government will still need to build one in Tuen Mun in the long term.'

Waste produced in Hong Kong grew by 21 per cent, from 5.3 million tonnes in 2001 to 6.4 million tonnes in 2009.

On old European maps Shek Kwu Chau was known as Coffin Island. It was uninhabited until 1963, when it became a heroin treatment centre. It was used in the early 1990s as a temporary detention centre for Vietnamese boatpeople. It is still a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts.

Shek Kwu Chau incinerator site

16 hectares of land to be reclaimed from the sea

Completion date of 2018

Higher estimated cost than proposed Tuen Mun site

Accessible by sea only, but fewer trips needed to deliver waste

6km undersea cable to connect site to power grid on Lantau

300 living on island. Nearest population on Lantau 6km away

31 hectares of fishing ground to be lost, including habitat of finless porpoise