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Hong Kong's third runway proposal

Environment experts slam Hong Kong’s Airport Authority over coral translocation plans

They question whether proper assessment was done as authority plans to move just 5 per cent of the corals found near construction site of third runway

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 8:45am

The Airport Authority has come under fire again – this time from government environmental advisers – over plans to translocate just 5 per cent of rare and slow-growing coral colonies found near the construction site of its third runway.

Members of the Advisory Council on the Environment questioned whether the authority had conducted proper assessment on the exact species of the coral colonies and whether they were endemic or unique to Hong Kong, with the authority claiming only that it was a common genus in the city’s western waters and of “no conservation interest”.

Two weeks ago, WWF Hong Kong grilled the authority for underestimating the coverage of affected gorgonian coral in the scope of the project during the original environmental impact assessment (EIA). The conservation group believes it is a globally rare species.

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The authority’s latest survey found the coverage of Guaiagorgia at the foot of the third runway and landing point of an underwater fuel pipeline at 20 per cent, or around 6,400 colonies. This was far higher than the 1 to 5 per cent estimated in its original EIA report, published in 2014.

But the authority will be translocating fewer than 5 per cent, or 300, of these colonies to Yam Tsai Wan in waters off northeast Lantau.

“The Guaiagorgia is not a species of conservation interest ... it is not on the IUCN Red List, on the Cites (Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species) database, or protected by law as an endangered species in Hong Kong,” argued Eric Ching of Mott MacDonald, the authority’s consultant, at a council meeting yesterday.

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Council member Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng, an assistant director of conservation at WWF, disagreed and said the technical memorandum under the EIA should not just look at Cites or local laws protecting it in determining whether a species was of conservation value.

“Many experts actually believe these corals are a new type of species. We may not know much about them now, but just because we don’t doesn’t mean they are not important,” he said.

Council member Professor Nora Tam Fung-yee questioned whether the small number was a big enough cluster to support sustainable growth in the new location and whether the authority had any contingency plan in the advent of a failure.

The Airport Authority said the overall coverage of Guaiagorgia in the sites near Sha Chau was quite low and in most areas, patchy. Whether or not the corals would be moved will depend on whether their colonies were planted on rocks with a diameter smaller than 50cm.

Corals will be tagged and a 15-month translocation monitoring programme would be conducted to check their health following the move, it said.

Meanwhile, council members also called a report on the impact of diverted SkyPier high-speed ferries on Chinese white dolphins “unacceptable” and “disappointing” as it failed to compare its statistics with historical official data.

But authority consultant Dr Thomas Jefferson said an “apples to apples” comparison of data was impossible as there were “factors difficult to control” such as the choice of vessel type.

“This report is unacceptable. You make conclusions without any evidence to support them,” said council member Dr Hung Wing-tat, pointing to the report’s conclusion that there was “no apparent negative impact” on the dolphins.

Improvement to SkyPier traffic, including the reduction of vessel speeds, was one of the conditions imposed by the council after endorsing the authority’s EIA for the third runway project in 2014.