Fears over white dolphin habitat halt work on massive US$15 billion South China Sea island airport

Work was under way on resort transport hub without official approval for an ecological assessment, authorities say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 10:52am

Work has stopped on a controversial 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) airport island reclamation project at one of China’s top tourist resorts, in a rare win for the environment.

The State Oceanic Administration confirmed that it ordered a halt on July 25 to reclamation for the artificial island off the coast of Sanya in Hainan province.

The SOA told NGO Friends of Nature last week that the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was not approved before construction started on the 26 square kilometre island in Hongtang Bay earlier this year.

The massive project is being built next to the Sanya Coral Reef National Nature Reserve and a habitat for the protected Chinese white dolphin, and has attracted controversy since its plan was unveiled three years ago.

Chinese tourist hub Sanya wants to reclaim land for new airport projects

Backed largely by HNA Group, the artificial island is one of the Hainan government’s pet projects and is meant to help absorb the ever-rising tide of tourists heading to the area’s resorts.

Work got under way on the project in April, the same month the project’s EIA report was released for public feedback. Friends of Nature responded by filing a complaint with the administration in May about threats from the construction to the environment and over work starting without approval.

In a letter to the NGO on Friday, the SOA said it conducted technical assessments, solicited public opinion and held a public hearing on the report, identifying “quite a number of problems” with the document.

‘Dangers’ of land reclamation: Sanya aims to create new artificial island to house city’s airport, but environmentalist is concerned

An SOA spokesman told the South China Morning Post that construction would not restart until another EIA report was approved.

“Of course they can only resume work when all the problems are sorted out,” the spokesman said.

Ge Feng, director of legal and policy advocacy at Friends of Nature, said the group complained to the SOA about the lack of approval for the project, the potential damage to the sea floor ecosystem and the risk of burying coral reefs.

In the EIA report, the authors admitted that the project would cost the Chinese white dolphin some of its habitat, though it was “not a significant” area compared with the species’ overall maritime range.

The government originally planned to have the airport up and running on a trial basis by the end of 2020, according to earlier reports.

The Chinese airports snapping at Hong Kong’s heels

Ge said such a concrete reaction from a state-level department after filing a complaint was uncommon.

“It’s rare. I hope there will be more in the future,” Ge said.

Nevertheless, there has been a flurry of development in the bay since the Hainan government released its plans for the airport scheme.

There are already 10 five-star hotels and a seven-star hotel in the area, and a number of holiday home projects are also being built.

Pang Jun, from Renmin University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, said it used to be common for work to start on a project without environmental approval.

“But such cases have been on the decline in recent years as the top leadership has attached more importance to environmental issues, emphasised quality growth and played down gross domestic product,” Pang said.

The new airport, which will have four runways and three terminals, is just one of the facilities to be built on the artificial island. It will also include a seaport operation area, an international aviation business area, and an industrial zone to support the airport, according to Sanya’s tourism commission.

The airport would be able to handle about 60 million passengers each year, about the same number of visitors to the province as a whole last year.