Officials are seeking more details about claim that the environmental impact study done on the Lung Mei artificial beach project in Tai Po was misleading, in what conservationists say is a positive step in their bid to have the plan scrapped.
The Environmental Protection Department sent a letter on Monday to the coalition opposing the project, asking them to submit more information by the end of the month.
It was the department's first official response to the group's request for the work permit to be cancelled since November, when it was submitted.
"This indicates the environment officials are taking our request seriously to have the permit cancelled," said Angus Ho Hon-wai of Greeners Action, and a member of the coalition.
Ho said it was difficult to say whether the government was using delaying tactics but he agreed the Civil Engineering and Development Department, which was issued a work permit for the project in November 2008, should have an opportunity to respond. "I won't say we are about to see any light at the end of the tunnel, but at least we are seeing a chance to realise our goal," he said.
The letter was sent after the civil engineering department extended the tender for construction of the beach by three months - from January 9 to April 9. "We believe it is appropriate for us to announce the bid after the relevant authority makes a decision on the [coalition's] request," a civil engineering department spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for the environment department confirmed it had asked the coalition for documents and information supporting its claim.
The government has said Tai Po district wanted the beach project to go ahead and that it has passed all statutory procedures. In a bid to appease opponents, it has plans for a conservation area around Lung Mei. But the coalition claimed the environmental impact study was misleading and called on the director of environmental protection to revoke the work permit issued to the civil engineering department.
More than 200 marine species, including some rarely found in Hong Kong, have been recorded by volunteers at the rocky tidal habitat of the Lung Mei site - significantly more than were reported in the study. Opponents also queried whether heavy metals in the water had been assessed and if sufficient consideration had been given to alternative sites.
The civil engineering department plans to relocate the organisms to nearby and similar habitats when construction starts. The 200 metre man-made beach, supported by Tai Po District Council, will cost HK$200 million. The idea was first floated in the mid-'90s, but the then Regional Services Department said it was not suitable due to technical and environmental problems.