Hong Kong’s illegal e-waste dumps ... whose fault? War of words between US watchdog and government

Hong Kong’s environmental protection department under fire for failing to prevent the import of electronic waste, with activists claiming they have been providing information on illegal dump sites since 2007.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 8:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 8:54pm

A war of words has broken out over claims by the government that a major US watchdog had failed to alert the environmental protection department of a number of toxic electronic waste sites in the New Territories.

Hong Kong’s environmental protection department has come under fire for failing to enforce transboundary laws preventing the import of electronic waste, following a report by watchdog Basel Action Network that used GPS trackers to expose Hong Kong as a “pollution haven” for US exporters, with 37 out of 65 items exported out of the US to Hong Kong.

The network claims to have alerted the department of the specific sites earlier this year. But a spokesman for the department, Gary Tam, in an email exchange with Basel Action Network’s director Jim Puckett, accused the network of failing to notify them of specific sites.

“Mr Puckett of Basel Action Network had [not] informed the environmental protection department about the hazardous e-waste entering Hong Kong,” said Tam.

“We have provided all of the 47 locations that we have discovered to the department via our tracking technology on June 16. Prior to that, we provided them with four sites,” said Puckett.

The network has accused the department of failing to act on years’ worth of notifications of different hazardous e-waste sites where exporters rely on lax enforcement and legislative loopholes unique to Hong Kong to bring toxic materials in. It has threatened to file official complaints with the parties to the Basel Convention and to mainland China delegates.

“We complained about this as early as 2007, to which the department simply replied that it was difficult [to curtail illegal imports]” said Puckett.

Revealed: the toxic trail of e-waste that leads from the US to Hong Kong

Puckett has been a chief proponent of international policies within the United Nations Basel Convention - the international body which prevents the export of hazardous waste from the developed to the developing world - since its inception in 1989.

“Even though Hong Kong responded and agreed to ban notifications of imported e-waste contraband sent to them from the US or Canada, they very rarely prosecuted these cases but merely turned them back to the US, knowing full well that the US government would do nothing to apprehend the exporters,” Puckett added.

“The operations conducted in New Territories are illegal and if one is truly interested in curtailing illegal imports, the government would very obviously close down the magnet for these imports and not just look at the odd container at the port.”

The South China Morning Post, with the help of Basel Action Network, visited a portion of sites where hazardous and legally dubious dismantling of electronic components was taking place, and found seven out of ten sites still in operation.

“In the past five years (2011-15), the department inspected about 3,200 containers and completed prosecutions of around 100 cases. All illegally imported e-waste had been returned to the originating places of export,” said Tam.