ROMER'S Tree Frog has become Hong Kong's most famous amphibian, not because of its remarkable appearance (it is thumbnail size), but because it was pushed closer to extinction by the new airport. The pink dolphins north of Lantau Island seem headed to a similar fate in which the attraction of their funny colouring is overshadowed by the fact they may not be around much longer. Attempts to save the frog and the dolphin came long after it was decided to destroy their habitats. These animals were an afterthought in the march to develop and prosper. Are they a sign of where the territory's environment is heading? The Environmental Protection Department is drafting legislation to stem the perception, if not the reality, that the environment is usually on the losing side when development is at stake. Environmental impact assessments - or EIAs in the greenies' lingo - will be required for all projects, private or public. Decisions on whether to build will be based on their outcome and developers will be legally bound to carry out any mitigation measures. It is, on paper, a giant step in the right direction. But does the Government have the will and the resources to fulfil the promise of the legislation? EIAs are already an administrative requirement for major infrastructure projects but they often act more as an account of what will go wrong than a tool for making decisions. Take the frog and the dolphin. The new airport is perhaps the most extreme example of the problem with EIAs, Hong Kong-style. The EIA was started after the Government decided to build the airport at Chek Lap Kok, so no matter what rare or valuable environmental features were found there, it was not going to affect the location or basic design of the airport. As Linden Coppell, who is doing a master's thesis on EIAs in Hong Kong, sums it up: ''The EIA here isn't really used as a decision-making tool, it's a mitigating measure. That's one of the fundamental problems with them.'' The airport is only one example where EIAs had little or no impact on whether a project would go ahead. Tai Lam Country Park, crucially sited on the route between Hong Kong seaports and mainland industry, will have a major highway tunnelling through it, plus a gas pipeline and a power transmission line. The Shenzhen River widening, which is intended to alleviate flooding, will ruin some bird habitats and alter water flows. The question for all these projects was not whether they should be built, but how to contain the damage, a point that Friends of the Earth's Lisa Hopkinson has found infuriating. She sits on the Advisory Council on the Environment's EIA sub-committee. ''I'm not damning the EIA process out of hand - there's definitely a role for EIAs and we're all behind the EIA legislation. They do have an influence on the design of the project, but it depends at what stage they're done,'' she said. Principal environmental protection officer, Elvis Au Wai-kwong, admits the process has been flawed. ''We rely very much on co-operation and persuasion, we don't have statutory powers,'' he said. ''There are limitations and we're trying to address those with our proposed ordinance.'' The Environmental Impact Assessment Bill would require private and public developments to have an ''environmental permit'' before they can build. This would stipulate any mitigating measures resulting from an EIA and it would be a pre-requisite to getting permits from other government departments, such as buildings or lands. Anyone who started work without an environmental permit would be liable to prosecution - with a maximum $5 million penalty. THE scheme has backing in principle from two Legislative Council panels and the Advisory Council on the Environment, and consultation is just starting with the industries involved. It is, predicts Mr Au, a system that would catch problems before they arose and it would also be of benefit to developers because it would level the playing field and let them know early on if changes are needed to their designs. But Billy Hau Chi-hang, a doctorate student who used to work with the World Wide Fund for Nature and has experience analysing EIAs, believes new laws will not be enough. Regular monitoring will be needed to check developers are doing as they should - for instance, keeping golf-course pesticides out of streams or reducing dust on construction sites - and that means more staff, he said. ''I doubt whether the Government has the manpower to do the regular sampling and checking that is required,'' he said. ''If the development is at more remote sites like Kau Sai Chau, it is even difficult for them to monitor things.'' Kau Sai Chau will be the site of a Jockey Club-backed public golf course. It is a remote island off Sai Kung and its distance is not the only reason for concern. Construction started before all EIA findings were submitted to the Environmental Protection Department and the work led to soil erosion which has damaged the mangroves. It was not the first time mitigation measures were ignored or fudged to fit building schedules. The re-furbishing of the Hong Kong Stadium, another Jockey Club project which opened in March, failed to properly account for the noise impacts on nearby residents, despite warnings from the Environmental Protection Department. Mr Au does not dispute that mitigation measures have been ignored and says confidently that the proposed legislation would prevent this. But he is more cagy about staffing. The department now has at most five people doing follow-ups on mitigation measures and these people have other tasks as well. ''We are seeking extra staff,'' he says. ''But the details have to be worked out later. We're just on the first draft of the legislation.'' How many they seek will depend on how wide-ranging the legislation is. Currently it covers everything from housing to power plants to roads to golf courses. But even if they get everyone they are looking for, it is not going to satisfy all the environmentalists. Mr Hau said EIAs currently fail to look at biological diversity and instead concentrated on whether there were rare or protected species involved. But this is not scientific, he said. ''A healthy environment will have a diverse community,'' he said. ''If you have a clean stream with some fish in it but they're not important, the Government will say it's acceptable for development. ''But from a scientist's viewpoint, a clean stream is important because we don't have many clean streams in Hong Kong.'' But Mr Au and Ms Coppell pointed out the department has its hands tied. The EPD is supposed to be responsible for pollution while the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, a much weaker department, has to look after ecology and conservation, things like the tree frog and dolphin. It has only a handful of staff to do this. There is no suggestion that EIAs are a waste of time and there is general support for legislation that will strengthen the process, but Ms Coppell suggests that perhaps the EPD's critics should see it in light of Hong Kong's unique situation. Green groups such as Friends of the Earth want more public involvement in deciding whether a development should go ahead, but they risk derailing development with endless talk, she said. ''You have got to keep an open mind and remember what sort of place Hong Kong is. People are so money-oriented, land is at such a premium, development makes so much money. It is going to be very hard to slow it down.''