Lai See

Is the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator the best solution for Hong Kong?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 3:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 9:02am

Is the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator the best solution for Hong Kong?

Assistant Director of Environmental Protection Elvis Au has a letter in today's South China Morning Post in which he seeks to correct some "misunderstandings" that he believes have occurred in Lai See and other articles in the newspaper with respect to the government's controversial Shek Kwu Chau incinerator.

His beef with Lai See is that we have suggested as an alternative technology plasma gasification, rather than the moving grate technology to be used in the incinerator.

The advantages of gasification are that there are virtually no emissions, and the resultant synthesis gas from the process can be converted into electricity, or biofuel.

The incinerator will have a capacity of 3,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day. It will produce 20 to 30 per cent by weight of hazardous bottom ash. The government proposes to transport it to the ash lagoon at Tsang Tsui with a fleet of barges.

In contrast, plasma gasification produces an inert slag which can be used as aggregate in the construction industry.

Au says in his letter the plasma gasification plants Lai See referred to are "relatively small in scale with very limited performance track record. Our recent visit with legislators to Europe in March has reaffirmed this observation. It would take several years of operation before the effectiveness and efficacy of such gasification plants can be evaluated." This is a view which he repeats often. But some experts disagree with him.

Speaking at a conference last year, Professor Umberto Arena, a waste energy specialist from Second University in Naples, said the plasma arc technology had been tried and tested for more than 10 years.

Au says his view of the technology was "reaffirmed" during his recent visit to Europe. This is somewhat disingenuous since the group of legislators decided to visit a small working plant in Avonmouth, England. They were invited to visit a much bigger project in Teeside which is being commissioned but they declined the opportunity.

Au has in the past assured us that the proposed incinerator will be compliant with European Union standards - the highest in the world - and therefore there is no need for concern over health impacts.

Yet, even in Europe, several doctors' associations (which included environmental chemists and toxicologists) in 2008 wrote to the European Parliament with concerns over incinerator particle emissions and the absence of specific fine and ultra-fine particle size monitoring or in depth industry/government epidemiological studies of these minute and invisible incinerator particle size emissions.

Despite the technology's apparent immaturity, plasma gasification plants are being planned by municipal authorities across the world, including China, the US, Britain, Indonesia and Canada.

In his letter, Au says the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator "has already been approved under various ordinances. Going for another site now will not be quicker as it will take considerable time to get the necessary approvals."

We can't help feeling that reluctance to rethink the incinerator project stems from an unwillingness to go through the process again, even though it is a plan that was conceived some time ago and new technologies are now available.

How confident can we be that we are getting the best waste management solution for Hong Kong? The project has so far been blocked by the Finance Committee. But if what we hear is correct, the Environmental Protection Department appears to have succeeded in doing deals with the various political groupings and the project is likely to be approved in the next legislative session.