The multibillion-dollar bridge being built across the Pearl River estuary might be delayed for months after a court quashed the environmental chief's decision to approve key elements of the Hong Kong section.
The Court of First Instance ruling yesterday was in response to a judicial review brought by retired Tung Chung resident Chu Yee-wah, 65, who has diabetes and a heart condition. She contended that the construction and operation of the projects would affect her health.
The court said Anissa Wong Sean-yee, director of environmental protection, had no power to grant the environmental permit for construction and operation of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge boundary crossing facilities and a 12-kilometre link road.
Mr Justice Joseph Fok ruled that the absence of a separate analysis of likely environmental conditions without the projects meant the impact assessment reports approved by Wong in 2009 did not meet the required standard. She therefore did not have the power to approve them.
Fok said the quashing was not a judgment on the merits of the project.
'Once the adverse environmental impact of the projects are properly assessed and presented in compliant environmental impact assessment reports, those will be the decisions for the director and not for the court.'
The Environmental Protection Department said it was seeking legal advice. But whether it appeals or complies with the ruling, it will delay the start of work on the Hong Kong section of the bridge for which the mainland has already begun building the main span.
Complying would mean the environmental permits issued to the Highways Department in 2009 would have to be withdrawn. Adding the missing information would take at least six months.
The Transport and Housing Bureau said it would still strive to complete the Hong Kong section on time and would study phasing the construction while pressing ahead with advance work.
Counsel for Chu, Philip Dykes SC, argued that the environmental impact assessment reports fell short of the required standard in seven areas. He succeeded on one of the grounds.
Fok said lack of the separate analysis meant that the environmental footprint of the projects could not be ascertained. Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC, for the government, argued unsuccessfully that such an analysis was not specifically required.
Construction of the Hong Kong section was scheduled to begin at the end of last year and be completed in 2016, but work has yet to begin.
The estimated cost of the entire project, including the bridge and its connecting facilities, is 72.9 billion yuan (HK$83 billion).
Dr Ng Cho-nam, a former environment adviser who scrutinised the bridge impact report in 2009, said it would be wiser for the government to provide the additional information.
'An appeal will be uncertain both in the time needed and the eventual outcome, while it might take as little as six months to bridge the gap of information,' he said.
It was the second time the department had been defeated in court over the environmental impact assessment process since the law was introduced in 1998.
In 2006, the Court of Final Appeal ruled in favour of Shiu Wing Steel over the assessment of an aviation fuel storage next to its factory; the assessment report was later supplemented with an additional study.