Pollution penalties must fit the crime

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am


More than 1,500 kilometres separate Hong Kong and Qujing in Yunnan province, where a chemical plant dumped 5,000 tonnes of a toxic heavy metal into a major tributary of Guangdong's Pearl River. While dangerous levels of the chromium waste have been recorded in the waterway and alarming readings taken in samples from soil, the site is so far removed from our city that it will not have an environmental impact. But while the distance is of no consequence to our water supply, it is quite another matter as far as food is concerned. Farms in the affected area grow vegetables that are sold in our city and, regardless of whether some have been contaminated and are detected here, our safety policy should be reviewed promptly.

Safety standards for chromium in produce are higher on the mainland than for Hong Kong. This was highlighted on Wednesday by health secretary Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, who, in announcing inspections of the Yunnan farms, revealed that of 900 random tests for metal contamination in mainland produce over the past 18 months, six had found chromium; in one case the level exceeded mainland limits, but not Hong Kong's. There is no unified international standard for chromium. The move by the Centre for Food Safety to set up an expert committee to consider whether any change is needed to the standards our city uses for heavy metals in food is, therefore, welcome.

The root of the problem, though, lies on the mainland, where the pollution occurred. There has been a series of scandals involving heavy metal pollution in different provinces. The central government has promised to spend huge sums of money to tackle the problem.

But there is a need to put in place a strong deterrent for factory owners and others who pollute the environment in their pursuit of profit. Laws are in place, but they are poorly enforced and penalties do not deter those found to be in breach. With companies putting profits foremost and local governments heavily dependent on their taxes for revenue, lawbreakers are often ignored or treated gently. Only when punishments are meted out that cut deeply into income will there begin to be a change.

It is disappointing that special environment courts set up in Yunnan have only dealt with two cases so far. It will be interesting to see whether a planned lawsuit against the chemical plant involved in this latest case of contamination is successful. If those who suffer the ill-effects of pollution are able to secure meaningful payments in damages, that will provide the deterrent.

Until that happens, Hong Kong has to have the sturdiest possible monitoring. Our food, no matter where it comes from, has to be safe.