Endangered dolphins deserve better than flawed airport report
"Dolphins v Development" has become the overarching focus of the controversial struggle raging over Chek Lap Kok airport's proposed third runway: just how much of a threat the development poses to the habitat of Chinese white dolphins and other marine life and land-based organisms in the area.
As a group of University of Hong Kong ecology alumni, we applied our professional knowledge of environmental conservation to review the Airport Authority Hong Kong's Third Runway Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) - in particular, the quality of the judgments about the ecological impacts on marine life and plants and animals on land.
Overall, we believe this report has several major technical deficiencies and failed to meet the standard required by the Technical Memorandum issued, under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, which aims to avoid, minimise and control the project's adverse impacts on the environment.
It played down the need to conserve potentially important fish spawning and nursery water areas, and sensitive species, such as a soft coral found only in the western waters of Hong Kong, rare yellow seahorses and longtooth groupers.
Many assessment methods were inappropriate, based on limited scientific support. A minimal loss of the carrying capacity of dolphins' habitats was predicted, but this was not supported by careful modelling. The estimated low impact on egrets was made without assessing the combined effects of multiple disturbances on birds. There were also questionable results, and mistakes in surveying the impact on fisheries.
The effectiveness of some proposed measures to mitigate the effect of the new runway was often exaggerated. It was expected dolphins will move away from the construction area but "return" once finished. Even assuming they will reappear, suggested rules for vessel speeds and volume will still be unsafe for them.
Also the new marine park, proposed as a major mitigation measure, will be designated only seven years after construction of the runway has begun. Yet the project proponent will have no jurisdiction over exactly where it will be located, or how it will be carried out. Similarly, there were misleading claims about new runway structures providing foraging grounds for birds because bird control will be enforced at the airport.
Owing to a lack of scientific support for the EIA report, and unreliable claims of the effectiveness of mitigation measures, it would be best for the Environmental Protection Department's decision to err on the side of caution - and reject this report.
Alex Yeung, ecology alumni representative, University of Hong Kong