Proposal to build an incinerator in Hong Kong shows up the flaws of government self-regulation
The Court of Final Appeal on November 26 will hear arguments on whether the director of the Environmental Protection Department can approve an environmental impact assessment report on an incinerator project that the department itself conducted. And having approved its own report, whether it can then issue to itself the permit for incinerator construction.
Should a government department regulate itself – proposing, evaluating and approving a project? A simple analogy: should you be allowed to set your own exam question, mark your own exam paper, and give yourself a passing grade?
Regardless of the court’s decision, the debate over the incinerator has exposed the deep flaws in government self-regulation. The department, negating its regulatory role, became chief lobbyist for the incinerator. Its officials, in their zeal to promote the project, presented selective, misleading and outright false information on numerous occasions.
To justify locating the incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau island, the department claimed that building it in Tuen Mun, a far more cost-effective site, would unacceptably worsen the air quality there, contradicting its own report. Its officials misrepresented the incinerator’s cost in legislative hearings.
Their incinerator obsession blinded them to the waste-management policy of countries where waste recovery and recycling are as important as incineration. They visited Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, which have such successful programmes, yet they reported no lessons learned on waste recovery and recycling, only incineration.
The department claims it conducted 120 consultations, yet the specifics of the project remained identical throughout the six years of “public consultation”.
The pitfalls of government self-regulation were raised by Christine Loh Kung-wai in 1997 when she was a legislator. At the second reading of the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, she expressed concern “about the difficult task of self-regulation that the bill imposes on the administration”, given that in many important projects, “the project proponent sitting across the table from the director of the Environmental Protection Department will be another senior government officer representing some other aspect of the public interest”.
“We know there will be internal conflicts within the administration over how stringently to apply the bill in such cases,” she said then.
What does Ms Loh, currently undersecretary of the environment, think of the case at the Court of Final Appeal now?
Tom Yam, Lantau