MTR 'let off lightly' for tree-felling

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am


A green group criticised as too lenient the HK$15,000 fine levied on the MTR Corporation yesterday for clearing 34 trees in a protected wildlife area near a high-speed-rail construction in the New Territories.

The MTR Corp pleaded guilty to the charge in Fanling Court, saying it had cleared the trees on the Pat Heung conservation area 'by mistake'. The fine was the first secured by the Environmental Protection Department for carrying out work without a permit.

Dr Cheng Luk-ki, of the environmental group Green Power, argued that the fine was too small to serve as a deterrent and set a bad precedent. The charge brought against the MTR Corp allows for a maximum fine of up to HK$100,000 and up to six months in prison.

'The case, involving technical misalignment in drawing, is not simple and is not like throwing rubbish in the countryside,' he said. 'The result gives an impression that the EPD prosecution work is wishy-washy.'

Cheng said the area damaged was a new-growth forest with mature trees where some wild animals, such as wild boars and the Muntiacus muntjak, or barking deer, roamed.

The environmental agency accused the MTR Corp of permitting its contractor, Leighton Contractors (Asia), to carry out work on a wooded slope, zoned as a conservation area, without an environmental permit last year. The company's permit covered a site for building a tunnel and ventilation shafts for the HK$66 billion rail line to Guangzhou, but did not cover the protected area.

A summons was issued to the MTR Corp and Leighton after department officials noticed the encroachment in December.

MTR Corp lawyer Hana Connie Sy pleaded for leniency, admitting the transport company had wrongly excluded the site from the construction boundaries in its submission when applying for the permit.

'It was a careless mistake,' she said, adding that the 34 trees felled were all common species and the cleared site would be re-vegetated after construction was completed.

Sy also noted that one government department actually gave approval for the tree clearance, although she did not say which one. The Environment Bureau also declined to comment after the hearing on who gave permission.

Acting Principal Magistrate Woo Huey-fang said the only mitigating factor she should consider was that the MTR Corp pleaded guilty at the first opportunity. The department offered no evidence against Leighton, which was told by the MTR Corp to cut the trees.

The offence under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance has a maximum penalty of HK$2 million and up to two years in jail for so-called indictable offences, which can be tried in a higher court. But the department decided the case did not warrant such action and issued a summons to the MTR Corp, which brings a lesser punishment.