A thicket of red tape covered the ‘waste hill’ of Hong Kong’s Tin Shui Wai

The fragmented and uncoordinated approach of government departments in dealing with a major issue of public health demands to be rectified

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2016, 11:43pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2016, 11:43pm

Given land abuse in the New Territories has become so common over the years, one would expect the government to have mapped out a well-established mechanism to deal with the problem. But the recent waste dumping found in Tin Shui Wai suggests otherwise. The responses given by the departments concerned were so bureaucratic and confusing that even the hardest criticisms would not seem strong enough to induce a change in civil-service culture.

It has to be asked how dumping in a private plot near a residential site can grow into a hill four-storeys high and the size of two soccer pitches without intervention. The “waste hill” was said to emerge as early as 2004. But it only made headlines recently when complaints failed to yield a remedy.

The six departments and agencies involved were not exactly passing the buck. But they only approached it from their own perspective. Take the response from the Lands Department as an example. Although part of the area is zoned as green belt, officials said an old lease for agricultural land did not come with land-use restrictions and therefore no rules had been breached. The initial reply from the Environmental Protection Department was equally baffling. The soil, it said, had been there “for many years”. Not only was there no sign of illegal waste dumping , it did not expose nearby residents to excessive pollution. The Town Planning Board appeared to be more forthcoming, saying enforcement action would not be ruled out should there be sufficient evidence of unauthorised development. The confusing responses clearly fall short of a responsible government.

A unified response only came after an inter-departmental meeting. The massive waste hill was finally ruled an illegal site formation that is potentially unstable and dangerous. Officials overseeing the environment also changed the tone, saying the works did not comply with rules against dust dispersion, and prosecution would follow.

Although the owner was ordered to stabilise the slope with concrete spray, no action was taken until early this week. But ironically, when land activists sought to shovel mud into bags to take to government offices in an act of protest, they were arrested by the police for alleged theft.

Officials should rectify its fragmented and uncoordinated approach in handling an issue of grave concern to public health and safety. The last thing the government wants is to be seen as shielding itself behind a thicket of rules and red tape.