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Hong Kong's third runway proposal

Disturbing U-turn on flawed environmental report for third runway

Samantha Lee says airport officials' measures to address environmental concerns over third runway remain inadequate, despite marine parks plan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2014, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 10:56am

The Advisory Council on the Environment will meet on Monday to discuss whether to advise the Environmental Protection Department to give the green light to the third-runway plan. After a closed-door meeting of the council's impact assessment subcommittee last week, the majority of members now appear to support endorsing the Airport Authority's environmental impact report.

This is a complete reversal from last month, when most council members criticised the measures proposed to lessen the project's effect on Chinese white dolphins. What made them change their mind?

Two main concerns were initially raised. First, the proposal for a marine park was deemed "too little, too late", as it would not be located in a key dolphin habitat and would only be set up after the construction phase.

Second, nothing was proposed to lessen the impact on the dolphins of the more than 300 vessels travelling daily in and around the construction site. In addition, the species would suffer a permanent loss of 650 hectares of habitat.

Then came the turnaround. On September 1, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department suddenly announced that it was ready to designate two new marine parks - proposed 14 years ago - off Lantau Island by 2017.

The department has denied any link between these new parks and plans for the third runway. Yet, one day after the announcement, the council's impact assessment subcommittee held another meeting, at which the majority of members said they would approve the Airport Authority's environmental impact assessment report for the third runway.

The reasons for this U-turn are difficult to fathom.

The marine park announcement cannot be used to facilitate approval of the third runway. If members really want the two marine parks to help alleviate the project's impact on the dolphins, they need to be discussed in the context of the third runway; the first step being an extension of the new parks' boundaries to link up with existing marine parks near Tai O. Some council members may also have been swayed by the Airport Authority's new 30-page plan released on September 2, which suggests financing conservation and research on marine ecology and fisheries. Yet there are doubts about some of the scientific claims in the report. Further, the authority describes it as "supplementary information", casting doubt on whether the suggestions would actually be implemented.

Then there is the fact that the plan lacks any effective measures to alleviate or compensate for the loss of marine habitat caused by reclamation work during the building of the third runway.

In fact, none of the proposed marine parks would lessen the impact of the large-scale reclamation work. So why the sudden change of heart by council members when no progress has been made? It's disturbing, when the authority's impact assessment report clearly remains substandard and flawed.

Council members must make decisions in the best interest of Hong Kong's environment. If the impact of the project cannot be properly addressed with the proposed measures, then the council is duty-bound to reject the impact assessment report.

Samantha Lee is assistant conservation manager, marine, at WWF-Hong Kong