The Environment Bureau's mega-incinerator proposal goes before the Legislative Council's Finance Committee today. As readers will be aware, it has attracted considerable opposition. The bureau has tried to characterise this as purely nimby (not in my backyard) opposition. However, there is more to it than this.
Current estimates are that the incinerator itself will cost HK$18.24 billion, together with an extra HK$3.2 billion for building the island out at Shek Kwu Chau. This latter figure is the price the previous administration was prepared to pay in order to ensure the continued support of Lau Wong-fat, chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk whose political fiefdom takes in Tuen Mun, where it was originally planned to build the incinerator. In addition, it is estimated that it will cost HK$402 million a year to operate. These estimates will inevitably spiral upwards.
We have written before about a planned anaerobic digestion plant that is to cost HK$1.5 billion, which is about eight times the price of a similar plant in Britain. Assistant director of environmental protection Elvis Au disputes this comparison.
Lai See along with many others have argued that there are cheaper and more appropriate technologies that can be used.
While the emissions from modern incinerators are undoubtedly a good deal less toxic than previously, health concerns remain. In Europe, where there are hundreds of incinerators, several doctors' associations (which included environmental chemists and toxicologists) in 2008 wrote to the European Parliament with concerns over incinerator particle emissions and the absence of specific fine and ultra-fine particle size monitoring or in-depth epidemiological studies of these emissions.
Opponents have drawn attention to the widespread adoption of plasma gasification plants for dealing with waste by the authorities in the United States, China and Britain, among others. With virtually zero emissions, these plants can convert waste to energy in the form of syngas, which can be used to generate electricity or turned into biofuel.
The process leaves an inert vitrified slag which can be used in construction. The bureau's proposal also includes elaborate arrangements for disposing of toxic bottom ash which can amount to about 25 per cent by weight of the waste that is being incinerated. It is planning to process 3,000 tonnes a day, and so almost 1,000 tonnes a day of toxic ash will have to taken by barge from Shek Kwu Chau and dumped in the ash lagoons near Tuen Mun.
The proposals were drawn up some 10 years ago and despite the development of alternative technology the bureau, for reasons best known to itself, has remained wedded to this scheme. Hopefully, the finance committee will refrain from playing political games with it.
China - a worry
Star fund manager Anthony Bolton recalls that during his somewhat ill-fated sojourn in Hong Kong where he started up Fidelity China Special Situations fund, he had 1,250 company meetings and travelled to the mainland once a month for nearly four years.
In a piece for Prospect Magazine written before he retired this year, he says that his cautious optimism about the mainland stems from "the deep changes in the economy now under way, and on my belief that the new leadership in China realises the need for reform and has the desire and the power to see this through". One thing he says he has learned from his stint from trying to make money out of investing on the mainland: "There is always something to worry about." What a modest man.
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