Delay in disclosing toxic run-off makes landfill expansion a harder sell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 1:52am

The concept of the public's right to know should not be too hard to understand for a government that prides itself as transparent and accountable. Instead of keeping the people in the dark, officials are expected to inform them as much as possible. This is particularly important when it involves issues of public health and safety. Delay and cover-up are not an option in an open society like Hong Kong.

But our government has once again acted otherwise. It took a month for the Environmental Protection Department to put out an alert on toxic water leaked from a landfill in North district. Although no one is believed to be drinking from the channel found to be contaminated, some farmers are said to irrigate their crops with the water. It has to be asked why officials kept the news to themselves after seepage was first reported on July 28. They may have wanted to wait for more data to assess its impact. But they also missed the earliest opportunity to inform the public of the potential danger. That transparency has been compromised is regrettable.

The strong reaction to the belated announcement shows the issue is a matter of serious concern. The department was wrong not to have sounded the warning earlier. Ironically, officials are still reluctant to come clean on the scale of the problem. Questions, such as how much water has leaked, and its toxicity, remain unanswered. What is certain is that contamination exceeded statutory levels and prosecution of the contractor is under way. The non-disclosure goes against the transparency and accountability expected of a responsible government.

The government has apparently not learned the lesson of last summer, when seven shipping containers of plastic materials washed off a vessel during a typhoon. Officials remained silent for weeks until some beaches were found mysteriously awash with white pellets. It is disturbing to hear that the Tuen Mun landfill might have had similar problems last year. This was first revealed during a radio phone-in programme; officials later denied the allegation.

The plan to expand the city's near-saturated landfills is already an uphill battle. The latest news is likely to muddy the water further if damage control is not done properly. It is good to hear that officials will consider more timely disclosure in future. The funding requests for the expansion projects are to be retabled to the legislature by early next year. Every effort has to be made to restore public confidence in our landfills.