The government will rezone land adjacent to the sewage-treatment plant on Stonecutters Island by 2009 for an upgrade to show the administration's firm commitment to cleaning up the harbour, the environment minister said yesterday. The pledge by Sarah Liao Sau-tung came after a political party accused officials of delaying the provision of land for the upgrade, which it said should start immediately instead of awaiting a further review due to begin in 2011. The dispute arose amid officials' intensive lobbying for the legislature's approval of a blanket 10-year sewage-fee rise to finance the operation of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme Stage 2A project. The project will collect the remaining untreated sewage from Hong Kong Island and transfer it to the Stonecutters treatment works through an underground tunnel. The works will cost about HK$8 billion. But green activists were unhappy with the lack of a firm official commitment for implementing a further upgrade, which would use biological means to remove excess nutrients. The Stage 2B upgrade would cost an extra HK$10.8 billion. Officials had said they would carry out a review of the project when the upgrade was needed in 2011, depending on population trends and the extent of compliance with water-quality objectives. In an earlier document submitted to the legislature, officials also highlighted the difficulty of speeding up the upgrade, saying land for it would not be available by 2010. Albert Lai Kwong-tak, deputy head of the Civic Party, said it would study whether a complaint should be lodged to the Ombudsman. He said that while officials had failed to rezone the land next to the Stonecutters plant - now zoned for container and related uses - the site has been leased out under a short-term tenancy agreement that would not expire until 2010. 'It is clear evidence to show how the government lacks commitment to implementing the upgrade and ensure the availability of land,' he said, adding all remaining phases should go ahead now, given the government's strong fiscal position. An international review panel on the sewage project suggested in 2002 the upgrade be implemented without delay. But the economic downturn after the Sars outbreak forced the government to split the project into two phases. In response to the accusation, Dr Liao said a previous study by the panel concluded a smaller piece of land would be required for the upgrade, but a subsequent feasibility study found the size of land required was much larger. She said the land was supposed to be the site for the port railway project, which the government was still assessing. But officials would ask for co-development of the site and put the sewage facility underground. She expected land use rezoning could start in 2009. Dr Liao said the 2A project, which had gone through detailed studies, could be completed earlier than the upgrade and deliver speedy improvement to harbour water quality. 'If you tie the two projects together, even the 2A project will be slowed down,' she said. 'We are definitely going to do 2B, but we need some time to gauge the actual capacity required. It does not mean it will not be built simply because there might be a population decline [around the harbour area].'