Falling Short

The Environmental Protection Department’s decision to grant an environmental permit to the Airport Authority to build a third runway is set to be challenged, with some members of the public planning to file a judicial review against its decision. The fact that such a court challenge has apparently become a routine part of the environmental impact assessment process reflects public doubts about its credibility.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, which took effect in 1998, requires that an environmental impact review be conducted for all major infrastructure projects. Mitigation measures must be accepted as adequate before the project can proceed. Since then, a total of 225 assessment reports have been submitted, and only seven of these have been rejected. This raises questions about the ordinance’s effectiveness.

The ordinance aims to determine the potential effects of a project in the early stage of planning, so as to avoid adverse environmental impact and/or ensure that appropriate compensation or mitigation measures are in place.

This process made the news in 2000 when the department rejected the assessment report of the Lok Ma Chau spur line project – the first such rejection in the history of the ordinance. As a result, changes were made to the project that enabled the conservation of freshwater wetlands in Hong Kong.

Yet, after this landmark case, the department appeared to lose its bite, accepting controversial impact assessment reports – such as those for the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai and for the third runway – despite the strong opposition of the public and green groups.

These reports were criticised for good reason. Independent expert opinion questioned whether the proposed mitigation measures could effectively counter the environmental impact of the projects.

Critics also noted that many measures were similar from report to report, regardless of the differences in the projects’ scale and scope, as well as the sites’ baseline environmental conditions. Additionally, any unintended consequences of the mitigation measures were simply ignored. In one case, a large number of birds were found to have collided with noise-reduction screens that had been built along a highway. Yet the screens’ impact on wildlife was considered beyond the evaluation’s scope.

Further, in some reports, people have raised questions over the qualifications of the consultants hired to conduct the assessment, and the frequency and method of assessment. Other complaints with the process include inadequate time for the public consultation and the ambiguous description of the projects’ needs and scope.

Hong Kong needs holistic environmental planning with stringent assessment guidelines. The public must be engaged early in the process, and allowed to play a key role as a watchdog. The government must commit itself to fostering a constructive dialogue with the people.

It’s time for the authorities to review the environment impact assessment system to increase its transparency and plug the loopholes. If the government wants to be the environmental gatekeeper, the system has to become more effective.