Hong Kong has weak laws to regulate the illegal dumping of construction waste on private land. The government admits it has lacked the authority to act in cases it would have liked to prosecute. As a result, landowners often find it futile to complain to police and other government departments. Yet they can face prosecution for allowing environmental degradation to occur. The dumping of rubble on the land of absentee owners near a Tai Po village looked as if it might be a breakthrough. This time, the Environmental Protection Department succeeded in obtaining an admission of guilt for the dumping from a contractor. The department prosecuted him. But now, as we report today, the villagers are up in arms again. This is because the contractor was fined only HK$8,000, a paltry sum measured against the maximum of HK$200,000, or for that matter against the scale of the illegal activity. Hundreds of trucks dumped thousands of tonnes of waste to a depth of three metres on 26,000 square feet of low-lying land. No wonder the Ting Kok Tsuen village representative described the fine as ridiculous. The penalty does little to make the offence a less lucrative alternative to the cost of legal dumping. Far from being a deterrent, it can be seen as an incentive to others to consider doing the same. What makes it even more derisory is that it was a rare prosecution at a time of rapidly increasing numbers of complaints about an environmentally and socially objectionable act. They have increased from 400-odd in 2005 to nearly 1,700 last year but less than 1 per cent are prosecuted. That helps explain why parts of the New Territories are eyesores. Environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah has said he is inclined towards increasing government powers and pledged to co-ordinate departmental efforts to monitor suspected illegal dumping. His department is also looking at tightening controls under the existing law. Either way, the experience of the Ting Kok Tsuen villagers shows that more effective action is needed to protect property rights and the environment. Complaints must be taken seriously and offenders caught and given punishments that fit the crime. A stronger deterrent would serve the public interest.