Shipyards that are destined for the rocks

THE jumbled collection of iron and steel that marks the shipyards at Tsing Yi island is more than just a minor industrial site.

To the nearby residents of the Ching Tai Court and the Cheung Fat Estate, the shipyards are a noisy eyesore which inflicts an unbearable level of noise pollution.

To the shipyard owners, the shipyards are the result of generations of family trade, and provide livelihoods for about 3,000 people.

And to the Government the shipyards are a problem that just won't go away.

Originally sited at Cheung Sha Wan, the shipyards were moved to their present site on north Tsing Yi island in 1964. They co-existed peacefully with the oil refineries and the gas works there until the late 1980s, when residential developers levelled the land around them and built high-rise public housing estates.

Since then, residents of these apartments have continuously complained about the noise from the shipyards. As a solution, the Government has announced that 21 of the 34 shipyards will move to a site 200 metres further up the coast.

At the moment, the closure of the shipyards is scheduled for next April. But there is growing concern within the Government that closing the shipyards will affect the smooth operation of shipping and construction projects.

The shipyards carry out maintenance and licence checks on about 70 per cent of the barges, tug boats, engineering boats and lighters which are used to load and unload cargo ships at anchor, and ferry supplies and workers to and from construction sites such as the new airport.

According to the shipyard owners, the move will cost more than $1 billion and force their closure for up to two years. They say that even if they started construction on the new site immediately - which is impossible because no financial arrangements to support the move have been put in place - preparation and construction of the new site will take at least two years, during which time the shipyards will not be able to operate.

The land to be vacated by the shipyards has already been re-zoned as District Open Space, and the Environmental Protection Department is pressuring the Government to keep to their original timetable to move the shipyards by next April.

But both the Maritime Department and the New Airport Project Co-ordination Office (NAPCO) have expressed concern at the effect the closure will have on Hong Kong's shipping and trade industries and the major infrastructure projects which rely on barges and tugs to ferry workers and supplies to the sites.

Marine Department figures show that there were 1,632 barges and 742 launches and ferries licensed in 1993, ranging from four tonnes to 1,500 tonnes. 'The majority of these vessels rely very much on the maintenance services provided by the shipyards in North Tsing Yi and these services become crucial when the vessels are due for renewal of licences,' a Marine Department spokesman said in a memo to the Government.

'Delay in reprovisioning of shipyards will have serious impact on new airport projects and cargo operations.' Of the 21 shipyards scheduled to move, only six are sited on private land and are eligible for full compensation. The remaining 15 rely on short-term tenancies from the Government which are renewed every three months, and are not eligible for compensation.

At present, the most they can hope for is to be deemed eligible for an ex-gratia payment at the discretion of the Housing Department, which is not expected to exceed $3 million for the largest shipyard.

In comparison, the shipyard owners estimate it will cost $30 million to move each single lot, taking into account the preparation of the land and the costs of building facilities, and will take at least two years.

The managing director of the Dorman shipyard, Tony Chan, said that aside from the cost of moving and rebuilding, the shipyards provide work for about 3,000 people, of whom about 2,000 are unskilled with little chance of finding new work.

'Most of them have worked for us from the age of 20 onwards and some are now over 70, and as shipbuilding is a specialised industry they are not easily able to change to other work,' Mr Chan said. 'So all the labour that will be out of jobs will be a long-term [burden] on society, and we can't afford to compensate them while they aren't working for two years.' 'We also feel very bad because they have worked for us for a long time and if they have no jobs it makes a lot of problems for their families,' he said. 'So it doesn't just affect 2,000 people, it is also their families and their households.

'From our point of view the Government has underestimated the problem and made the wrong planning decision for the housing estate,' Mr Chan said. 'They knew these shipyards were here and they knew they would stay here. The new site is only 200 metres away and it won't solve the noise problem.' The shipyard owners are also concerned at the terms on which the Government has agreed to lease the new site, which only guarantees tenure for seven years, while they claim that the land itself, which is built on five metres of mud, is not solid enough to take the weight of a 3,000-tonne ferry.

Even if the move is successfully completed, new residential apartment complexes being built in the area are likely to suffer from the same noise problems.

Already two new luxury private apartment blocks are being built less than 200 metres across the water from the new site, and more are planned in the surrounding hills.

France Rolan, a Filipino domestic helper who has lived right beside the shipyards for two years, said the noise level varies.

'Sometimes there is no noise but sometimes there is, maybe when they're busy, and they have overtime,' she said. 'Sometimes it is so bad I have to close the window so that it does not wake the baby up.' Another resident, Mr Lam, said he often hears a lot of noise from the shipyards, and that they sometimes operate on Sundays and public holidays.

'After sunset the noise is not as heavy as in the daytime but when they are welding there is a smell,' he said.

Legislator Mr Albert Chan Wai-yip said the problem facing the shipyards and the residents was the result of the Government's disorganised planning policy during the 1980s which did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be carried out.

'The noise impact was never addressed when the Government came to a decision to develop those sites as residential areas,' Mr Chan said. 'It is the sort of problem that was only brought to light when the residents moved in and there have been lots of complaints of noise over the past 10 years.' He said he agreed with the need to move the shipyards but was concerned that the Government had only recently thought to carry out an EIA on the new site.

'The Government's attitude is totally irresponsible in just finding a site and telling them to move,' he said. 'The distance between the new site and the existing buildings is definitely further but it doesn't mean residents in those buildings won't be affected.' 'It amazes me that an EIA has not been conducted, I am quite dismayed to observe the whole thing unfold back to square one,' Mr Chan said.

For the moment, the shipyards remain in limbo, having been given notice of the move but no formal date for closing.

The shipyard owners say they have already taken measures to control noise, such as limiting working hours to between 8.30am and 4.30pm, and they believe one solution would be to look at improvements to the housing blocks - such as double glazing of windows - as an alternative to the move.