Recycled environmental report on incinerator plan falls short
Hong Kong people seem to be put off by incinerators because of their impression of such technology from the past - smoke-belching incinerator chimneys of the 1980s.
Today's incineration technology has in fact advanced considerably, so only very low levels of dioxins and other pollutants are emitted. Instead, we should fear the plant's destructive impact and wasteful capability if it is built as currently proposed by the Environmental Protection Department.
The environmental impact assessment report of the proposal to build an incinerator near Shek Kwu Chau has been resubmitted to the Advisory Council on the Environment for approval. The council is now scrutinising it, after one of its subcommittees endorsed it earlier this month.
Consideration of the incinerator plan was delayed by a legal challenge to the quality of the environmental report for a proposed bridge to Zhuhai and Macau. In that case, the Court of Appeal ruled that bridge works could proceed, but said the director of environmental protection should have the professional knowledge to ensure that the environmental impact of projects are kept to a minimum to safeguard public health.
The spirit of requiring an environmental impact assessment to be conducted is to allow the project proponent to apply the best practical means (including best technologies) to first avoid potential impact on the environment, and then to minimise any impact that is unavoidable.
As a member of the advisory council's subcommittee that evaluated the incinerator reports, I registered my disagreement. I could see there was no major change in the resubmitted report to the questionable choice of the site for the proposed incinerator, nor proper consideration of the latest technologies being used elsewhere. Where is the mention of local corporations that want our garbage or their trials showing low emission levels? Is this due diligence by the director, who is supposed to be the department's final gatekeeper?
In the proposal, the incinerator will perform basic sorting out of incoming waste, and the furnace will burn high-value resources, such as plastic, paper, metal and even food waste, to produce a little electricity. Will revenue from that electricity even cover the daily operating costs?
It appears that, once again, the department is attempting to hard-sell its questionable decision to locate the incinerator off Shek Kwu Chau.
The following questions are worthy of discussion.
First, the department has said the location of the incinerator off the island would not directly damage the land ecology of the island. Officials are right, but can it avoid permanent damage to the marine environment, or indirect damage to Shek Kwu Chau?
Second, the building of the incinerator off Shek Kwu Chau by 2018, rather than at Tuen Mun, the government's second choice, will take two more years to complete. So what is the logic behind a choice that means over two million more tonnes of waste going into our landfills, not to mention the extra billions of dollars of taxpayers' money that will be spent on the permanent destruction of the marine environment, on account of the reclamation?
Finally, the council's subcommittee was asked to approve the environmental impact assessment reports for both options - Shek Kwu Chau and Tuen Mun - even though the government plans now to build only one incinerator. What is the motive behind that? Could it be that the department wants to avoid the hassle of getting approval for a second incinerator to cope with more garbage?
Without more waste-avoidance measures like charging for disposal, a landfill ban, producer responsibility schemes and community-wide education, then even a 3,000-tonne incinerator plant won't be able to cope with the garbage generated by our wasteful lifestyles.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth (HK) and a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment