Appointment of another bureaucrat to top Hong Kong environmental post defies calls for more scientific expertise

Anissa Wong Sean-yee, who has led the Environmental Protection Department for 10 years, will be succeeded by the current commissioner for labour Donald Tong Chi-keung

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 September, 2016, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 1:31pm

A career bureaucrat will continue to direct the Environmental Protection Department, despite long-standing calls from green groups for the role to be filled by someone with more professional and scientific expertise.

Anissa Wong Sean-yee, who has led the department for 10 years as director of environmental protection and permanent secretary for the environment, will be retiring from public service in two weeks. Her dual posts will be taken up by Commissioner for Labour Donald Tong Chi-keung on September 19.

In a statement on Tuesday, secretary for the civil service Clement Cheung Wan-ching praised Wong for implementing “many measures” to improve air and water quality, and introducing producer responsibility schemes and “other measures for promoting waste reduction and recycling”.

“[Wong] took forward the construction of waste-to-energy facilities, spearheaded the review of the electricity market and brought welcome changes to energy efficiency and conservation in Hong Kong,” Cheung said. “I wish her a happy retirement.”

But environmentalists have a different assessment. Greeners Action executive director Angus Ho Hon-wai questioned her achievements in waste reduction, as the volume of municipal solid waste generation in the city had gone up, not down.

He pointed to a scathing Audit Commission report last year which slammed Wong’s department for “piecemeal” policies on waste reduction and missing targets on waste disposal at the city’s overflowing landfills.

About 1.35kg of rubbish a day was generated in 2014 compared with 1.33kg in 2013, 1.3kg in 2012 and 1.27kg in 2011. “The failure to implement a waste charge and important producer responsibility schemes for things like plastic bottles are among other major disappointments,” Ho said.

WWF-Hong Kong assistant conservation director Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng – a member of the government’s Advisory Council on the Environment – said the positions of permanent secretary and director needed to be split as the latter was a “gatekeeper” tasked with the statutory role of granting environmental permits to major infrastructure projects.

Several controversial environmental impact assessments were given the green light under Wong’s watch including the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and third runway at the airport – both the subject of multiple judicial challenges.

“Having two hats to wear can cause some conflict of interest as the public would question whether decisions made are politically driven,” Lau said. “Ideally, the EPD director should have professional or technical knowledge of environmental issues.”

The Environmental Protection Department and the then Environment, Transport and Works Bureau’s Environment Branch were merged to form the current structure in 2005 to “achieve synergy between policy formulation and implementation” and reduce staff costs.

Tong, a veteran administrative officer, served in the Transport Department, the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, among other posts. He was deputy home affairs secretary from 2006 to 2008 and economic and trade affairs commissioner in the United States from 2008 to 2014. He became labour commissioner in March 2014.

Tong’s old post will be taken up by Carlson Chan Ka-shun, who is currently Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s private secretary.

"The two appointees are seasoned administrative officers with proven leadership and management skills," said Cheung of his two new appointments. "I have every confidence that they will continue to serve the community with professionalism in their new posts and lead their departments to rise to the challenges ahead."