Hong Kong watchdog calls for end to fly-tipping ‘loophole’ with more checks on weekends and holidays
Ombudsman’s office says lack of government inspections during holiday periods could encourage offenders to dump waste at these times
Officers investigating the illegal dumping of construction waste in Hong Kong’s New Territories might have left a loophole in their inspections, as only 6 per cent of their checks in the past two years took place on weekends, public holidays and non-office hours, according to the latest report by the government watchdog.
The report by the Ombudsman’s office, released on Thursday, said this could encourage offenders to dump waste at these times.
Enforcement action also took too long, the report noted, pointing out that about half of the offenders who received a government rectification notice in the past 12 years still had not complied a year after the three-month deadline.
In some cases, such as the infamous Kingswood Villas “waste hill” in Tin Shui Wai, dumping was potentially environmentally damaging but was legal, prompting the Ombudsman to call for a public discussion on revising related ordinances.
“[Dumping of construction waste has] aroused public concerns about issues such as environmental hygiene, land use and conservation,” the office said in the report. “Strict control by the government departments concerned … is, therefore, of paramount importance.”
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said: “[The government] is not proactive enough to carry out its duty to enforce the law.”
Lau’s office found that the Environmental Protection Department conducted 971 inspections between January 2016 and October last year, but only 60 took place after office hours or on weekends and public holidays.
According to the report, the department deemed it pointless to carry out inspections in these periods because most of dumping activities would stop to evade enforcement actions.
But the watchdog cited public views as saying that this would only allow offenders to evade inspection by dumping in these hours. It urged the department to consider such views.
“We have reservations about [the department’s] explanation,” Lau said. “We hope the department can increase its inspections [in these periods] to plug this loophole.”
She also urged the department to conduct more proactive inspections instead of mainly relying on complaints and media reports.
The Planning Department was also slow in enforcement, the report said.
The office found the department issued 851 notices between January 2006 and October last year to offenders, requiring them to return affected sites to their original condition within three months.
But about half of the offenders had not complied a year after the deadline. In 14 cases, offenders complied three years after the deadline while it took three offenders more than five years to comply.
The office said the department should not tolerate delays and should take further action such as prosecution.
Over the 12 years, the department made 155 prosecutions with 136 successful, with an average fine of HK$45,000.
The office said the fine was too low to deter offenders.
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In the case of the Kingswood Villas waste hill, the office found the dumping of soil on a one-hectare site to the east of the housing estate was allowed under both the Waste Disposal Ordinance and Town Planning Ordinance.
The Waste Disposal Ordinance allows dumping on a site as long as all landowners sign an agreement of consent and submit it to the director of environmental protection for acknowledgement.
The latter ordinance allows such activities as long as the sites were already affected before they were included in official government zoning.
“[The ordinances] do not consider environmental protection [in terms of dumping],” Lau said. “Is it still suitable for today’s environment? I think the public needs to study whether the ordinances need to be revised.”
An Environmental Protection Department spokesman said the department agreed with the report and would follow up on the suggestions.
A spokesman for the Planning Department, meanwhile, said it had increased resources in the past two years to enhance enforcement. He said the department would follow up on the Ombudsman’s suggestions and take “resolute” action against delays in rectification.