Can we trust our environmental impact assessment system?

September 18, 2015 16:45
The recent contamination of fish ponds caused by MTR construction work in the Mai Po Nature Reserve has raised public concern over the reliability of our environmental impact assessment system. Photo: HKEJ

Last month, a wildlife conservation organization discovered a massive amount of mud leaking out from a fish pond near Tam Kon Chau Road at the Mai Po Nature Reserve.

Two days later, the entire bank of the pond collapsed.

MTR Corp. Ltd. (00066.HK) later admitted the collapse could have been caused by ongoing underground drilling work related to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

The company said it had called a halt to the drilling and would carry out a further investigation.

However, MTRC has yet to publicize the details of what caused the incident and the remedial measures it is planning to take.

The pond is located by the Ramsar wetlands, a designated wildlife refuge protected under the international Ramsar Convention since 1995.

Since construction of the high-speed railway line began in 2011, several civilian groups have found that unusual air bubbles have continued to emerge from the bottom of the fish pond, suspecting that could have been caused by the underground drilling work.

Environmental experts said the mud that came out from the pond recently could contaminate other fish ponds and reed beds of high ecological value nearby, destroying the natural habitat of many endangered fishes and migratory birds, and the damage could be irreversible.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is instrumental in environmental conservation.

It aims to identify any potential threat to the natural environment before a construction project begins.

An EIA proposes solutions or alternatives such as changing the location, route or start date of the construction project based on the "precautionary principle", so as to minimize its impact on the environment.

Guidelines issued by the Town Planning Board require all building projects inside any wetland reserve to pass an EIA before they begin.

The EIA report commissioned by MTRC in early 2000 concluded that the digging of tunnels might pose a potential threat to the water level of the fish ponds.

But it concluded that since MTRC would be using the latest drilling technology, the overall environmental impact of the construction work on the Mai Po Nature Reserve would be "minimal".

However, the recent incident has raised public concern about the true environmental ramifications of the railway line project and called into question the accuracy and impartiality of the EIA report.

Did the consultant hired by the MTR deliberately downplay the environmental consequences of the construction project to make it easier for the company to get the green light from the government?

Although the Environmental Protection Department has claimed that the EIA system adopted in Hong Kong complies with international standards, it has become increasingly clear that the system has failed to live up to rising public expectations with regard to environmental conservation.

In recent years, several controversial projects, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the Lung Kwu Tan incineration plant and the third runway at the Chek Lap Kok airport have been approved by the department, one after another, casting widespread doubt on the reliability of the EIA reports for these projects and prompting some members of the public to challenge their approval by applying for judicial review.

I believe there is still a lot of room for improvement in our environmental assessment system, and the government is under an obligation to put things right, so as to raise its own credibility and minimize the potential for causing disputes over major infrastructural programs in the future.

There is no shortage of justification for the growing public concern over the reliability of the EIA system.

For example, some have pointed out that the guidelines issued by the department on the methodology of an EIA are unclear and uncomprehensive, leading to inaccuracies and half-truths in EIA reports.

For instance, while a recent EIA report commissioned by the government over the construction of an artificial beach in Tai Po concluded that there are only 21 different species of intertidal zone inhabitants in the area, some conservationists have found more than a hundred.

Moreover, consultants who compile EIA reports are mostly hired by the project contractors themselves, which calls into serious question their impartiality and the opinions they offer.

Besides, members of the current Advisory Council on the Environment are all appointed by the government, and there is basically no effective channel through which environmental experts and members of the public can make their voices heard.

The EIA process also lacks transparency and fails to facilitate public participation and open discussion, not to mention public consultation periods are often too short and EIA reports are written only in English.

I believe there is a pressing need to reform the existing EIA system, because it can reduce the possibility of environmental disasters resulting from construction programs.

The government should also be more proactive in carrying out land planning and conservation policies even before the development programs begin.

Only by balancing development and conservation can we achieve sustainable development in our city.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 16.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)