A taskforce is suggested to catch polluters in the act and conduct spot-checks on building sites, along with tougher penalties for subcontractors flouting the law Environmental lawyers and experts in noise pollution have called for tighter, more targeted law enforcement and a system of spot checks to deter repeat offenders in the construction industry. Christopher Tung, a specialist in construction and environmental law, said the burden of responsibility should be shifted from the contractor to the developer of a site where environmental laws are breached. He said the issue should be dealt with across the contractual or project chain, instead of focusing only on the main contractor. 'Developers should be penalised for engaging contractors with poor environmental records or even prosecuted for environmental offences on the construction sites of which they are the developer,' he suggested. 'The [penalty system] should also properly target the actual offender for prosecution, which often is the subcontractor and specific workers [rather than the main contractor].' Li Kai-ming, chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Acoustics and an associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's department of mechanical engineering, said a taskforce should be set up to catch polluters in the act. 'I do believe that some of the contractors take chances. As a small but proactive measure the government should set up a taskforce to carry out spot checks on construction sites,' he said. Dr Li said amendments to the Noise Control Ordinance enacted earlier this month, which hold company directors or officers liable for any noise offences committed by their companies after an initial warning from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), was a positive step towards reducing construction noise. 'But it's now a matter of executing the legislation,' he said. Mr Tung said while the amendments were a useful tool for the EPD, they failed to address the need to deal with the environmental problem at other points of the commercial and contractual chain. 'A multipronged and fair approach is necessary to tackle the problem properly, including cost allowances in public and private sector construction contracts for environmental protection and mitigation measures,' he said. 'If works are too aggressively priced, to the extent that the construction contract cannot cover the cost of effective environmental precautions, a main contractor may have little choice but to do his best to minimise environmental infractions when they might have been eliminated if the works were let at a reasonable price.' In addition to prosecution and fines, Mr Tung said the government could take regulatory action against contractors during the tendering process. A spokesman for the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau confirmed that under new guidelines issued in April, civil works contractors could now be warned or suspended from tendering for public works contracts if they accumulate more than five safety or environmental convictions within a 12-month period. Contractors are required to provide statements of no convictions or of all convictions within a 12-month period for this purpose. 'This means that for public works, multiple environmental convictions can now lead to suspension, which makes it difficult for contractors just to factor in the cost and pass it down to their subcontractors,' said Mr Tung. Noise pollution experts agree that another aspect of the problem is the low fines issued for various pollution offences, particularly the small fines imposed on repeat offenders. The anti-pollution laws enforced by the EPD specify fines of up to $100,000 for a first offence and $200,000 for a second or subsequent conviction under the Noise Control Ordinance - the most frequently breached anti-pollution law on construction sites - and up to $500,000 under the Air Pollution Control and Waste Disposal Ordinances. Fines of up to $1 million can be issued under the Water Pollution Control Ordinance. Freeman Cheung, executive director of Environmental Resources Management and a specialist in air quality and noise issues, said: 'In general I think that a penalty of $100,000 is sensible, but a lot of the time [the courts] fine even less and you could argue it is not having any effect.' Mr Cheung said the prospect of paying heavy penalties for late completion may also be pushing many contractors to work outside approved hours, preferring to run the risk of paying small fines for breaching noise control laws if they are caught. Mr Tung believes that for first-time offenders or for minor or technical infractions, fines of about $10,000 to 15,000 are reasonable. 'But a fine of only $100,000 for a hardened repeat offender is pathetic,' he said. 'For noise offences I have not personally seen the maximum of $200,000 imposed. I think it should be in some cases.' A spokesman for the EPD said the level of fines imposed were determined by the courts and that it was not appropriate for the department to comment on whether the fines were effective. But on its website, the EPD concedes: 'Construction noise remains a problem. The EPD is working to encourage greater compliance among builders.'