The Protection of the Harbour Ordinance that aims to limit reclamation in Victoria Harbour to preserve this unique asset of Hong Kong has inadvertently forced the government to look elsewhere to resolve the perennial problem of a shortage of land.
The pressing need for public and private housing, due to the influx of mainland immigrants as well as rising local demand, has pressured the government to reclaim land in other parts of Hong Kong. Official determination to find alternatives should have been reason to cheer. But the proposed reclamation sites leave much to be desired.
According to press reports and an analysis by the Institute of Surveyors' Lawrence Poon Wing-cheung, of the five proposed sites put forward by the government, only two are feasible options suitable for residential purposes. One is located in Ma Liu Shui, Sha Tin, and the other in Lung Kwu Tan, Tuen Mun.
Although the Sha Tin option has stirred strong opposition from some students and teachers of the nearby Chinese University, it doesn't seem that the plan would have any adverse environmental impact. On the other hand, the Tuen Mun option has obvious undesirable environmental and health elements.
I disagree with Poon that it's suitable for residential development. The proposed site, located between CLP's Black Point and Castle Peak power stations, is along the coastal waters of Lung Kwu Tan. To its northeast is the soon-to-be-full West New Territories landfill. And the government is expected to expand the landfill westwards, bringing it closer to the proposed reclamation site in Tuen Mun. It's not difficult to imagine how disgusting the air would be in winter with the prevailing northeasterly winds.
Lung Kwu Tan is also close to power stations, which are mostly coal-fired. Hence, air pollution is already a serious problem in that area.
According to research by Greenpeace in 2005, coal-fired power stations emit more than 60 different hazardous air pollutants, including not just sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but also mercury and arsenic, a carcinogenic toxin. Lung Kwu Tan residents would be breathing in highly toxic air every day.
Furthermore, the government is planning to build sludge treatment incineration facilities as part of the expanded landfill. The new incinerator will burn the sludge generated from the landfill.
During incineration, a small amount of dioxins is expected to be released into the air. Dioxins are highly toxic substances that can cause reproductive and developmental problems. Long-term exposure can damage the immune system.
Therefore, the World Health Organisation has, for many years, urged countries to do their utmost to eliminate this environmental pollutant. What kind of government would put its citizens at such great risk by allowing them to live near toxic dumps that emit dioxins and mercury?
Even if the two power stations were shut down today, the sludge treatment incinerator plan was shelved, and the government decided not to expand the nearby landfill, it still wouldn't make Lung Kwu Tan more liveable and fit for residential development right away: the soil and underground water have been contaminated over the years.
Thus, the environmental conditions in Lung Kwu Tan pose a potentially serious health hazard to present and future residents.
The area surrounding Lung Kwu Tan is dotted with recycling plants. Needless to say, tonnes of chemicals would have been dumped into nearby rivers and streams. The government should conduct thorough environmental tests and assessments of the marine environment before going ahead with reclamation in the area.
If the soil and underground water are indeed found to be contaminated, it would be unthinkable to build homes there.
If the government really wants to reclaim land in Lung Kwu Tan, it must do what it did with the old Kai Tak airport site; that is, carry out a radical clean-up and revitalisation operation. That would no doubt be costly and extremely time-consuming. The Kai Tak clean-up took more than 10 years and cost billions of dollars, after all.
The problems in Lung Kwu Tan could be worse and would therefore take longer to fix and cost more to tackle.
If that's the case, how would reclaiming land there help resolve our housing problem in the short and medium term?
The Lung Kwu Tan reclamation idea has Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's signature all over it. Just like the order to limit the sale of infant formula and the implementation of the buyer's stamp duty, it is aimed at placating public anger and criticism to boost his popularity. Leung should put the best interests of the public above all else.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org