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Chp 116, Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) – Forty years champion for the environment

Harbour Area Treatment Schemet (HATS)

In March 2001 the Government announced that it would adopt most of the recommendations of the International Review Panel (IRP) for the Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme (SSDS) and officially put an end to the SSDS. To give a fresh start to the sewage strategy, the official name was changed to Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, or HATS, for which further funding was sought from LegCo.

In its submission to the government in April 2001, CA welcomed the decision as “a long-awaited step to rebuild community confidence in the painfully slow process of cleaning up Victoria Harbour and its surrounding waters.” But CA also warned the government not to repeat previous mistakes, particularly the confusion of roles within government. Maybe CA’s complaint is relevant not just to sewage strategy but to other government functions as well: “Too many government departments are involved during the process of concept planning, design, engineering, contract letting, project management, execution, operation and monitoring. In the end, no single unit in the Government took responsibility for the entire scheme and responsible officials were able to hide behind the bureaucratic maze and took advantage of confused lines of responsibilities. Consultants and contractors too could easily took advantage of the confusion when substandard work was delivered.”

Besides, the conflict between the monitoring and execution roles of the Environmental Protection Department and the lack of accountability and transparency were also highlighted. The proposed solution by the CA was to set up a new Clean Harbour Authority 淨化海港管理局 to be an integrated executing agency for HATS from design to commissioning, with EPD remaining as the regulatory authority to provide checks and balance.

That wholesale institutional reform never took place. In its place was a Monitoring Group established for HATS, with a limited mandate and a reduced membership primarily drawn from the Advisory Council on the Environment. The Group held its first meeting on 23 June. CA’s Ng Cho Nam was a member of the Group, while within CA the subject was led initially by water-industry engineer Albert Lai.

If green groups had thought the adoption of the IRP recommendations had put the debate behind once and for all, they were in for a big disappointment. The Consultation Document for HATS Stage 2 released in 2004 drew sharp criticism from green groups, including CA. In an immediate submission to the Legco Environmental Affairs Panel on 5 July 2004, CA lambasted the government for failing to commit to biological treatment, as promised earlier, and for closing down the Monitoring Group ahead of the consultation.

CA’s full response to the HATS Stage 2 Consultation was submitted on 20 November 2004. Government’s failure to commit to full-blown secondary (biological) treatment remained the main bone of contention. Secondary treatment being a legal minimum in most developed countries and in Mainland China, CA was concerned that without that level of water quality, the harbour could not possibly get up to the standard of a harbour that could accommodate recreational uses. Secondary treatment is not only essential to improving water quality in the harbour area and beyond, but would also serve a much-needed demonstration effect to our neighbouring cities in the Pearl River Delta.

By contrast, the government’s proposal was to split HATS Stage 2 into two phases, Stage 2A and Stage 2B. Biological treatment would only be introduced in Stage 2B, for which there was no clear timetable. The shortfall in treatment would be mitigated by enhanced chemical treatment with chlorination in Stage 2A. For CA, that was not good enough; biological treatment should not be delayed.

CA also commented on the number and sites of the treatment plant and accepted the centralised option of a single plant at Stonecutters Island subject to secondary treatment being introduced from day one. However, CA disagreed with the government’s population projection and peak design factors which in CA’s view inflated the cost of Stage 2 unnecessarily; had the cost been made more realistic, there would not have been the need to delay secondary treatment.

CA also spoke against the dissolution of the Monitoring Group, which made “a mockery of the public participation process over the last three years. It is clear that a more transparent, accountable and broad-based public participation process must be installed to avoid the past mistake and to oversee the future of HATS Stage 2.”

Despite CA’s protestations, the government decided to go ahead with the HATS as proposed, i.e. implementing Stage 2A first without firm commitment for Stage 2B. CA sent another submission to Legco’s Environmental Affairs Panel on 27 June 2005 warning of the potential risks of capacity wastage and insufficient treatment if LegCo approved funding for HATS to go ahead in the form proposed by the government.

As a champion for the harbour clean-up, CA was not trying to be a barrier to HATS, but rather to expedite the higher level of treatment which the government had agreed to but never totally committed. Alarm bells were raised again throughout 2006 in the discussion on charging, with neither LegCo nor the Administration showing the determination to apply the polluter-pay principle. If concern about cost resulted in holding off Stage 2B, that would be a bigger cost for society. It could also mean the “sterilising” approach opposed by CA, i.e. applying chlorination, being continued indefinitely. The latter would be harmful to the marine environment and of little additional sewage treatment benefit.

The crunch time came in 2007 when LegCo was asked to approve an increase in the sewage charges for the following 10 years, upon which the government would implement HATS Stage 2A, i.e. chemically enhanced primary treatment with chlorination disinfection. No commitment was made on biological treatment (Stage 2B) other than a promise to review it in 2010/11.

CA initiated a statement in May 2007 with WWF, Green Student Council and Green Sense, putting to LegCo the question, “What excuse do we have as China’s most advanced city to make do with second-best and fall short of worldwide best practice?” The statement further pointed out, “Since the IRP recommendation in 2000 that all harbour sewage should be given secondary treatment, the government has done virtually nothing in the intervening seven years on the key issue of identifying and setting aside the additional land on Stonecutters Island necessary for the secondary sewage treatment plant. This inaction casts doubt on the government’s good faith and begs the question whether it is truly committed to secondary treatment.”

But the government’s plan was approved so by 2008, there is still no set date for the promised treatment of organic pollutants (i.e. secondary, biological treatment) of our harbour waters. What will happen is that Stage 2A will be fully commissioned in 2014 with the disinfection facilities advanced to 2009. The fate of Stage 2B will be subject to review.

August 4, 2015 Posted by | Dr WK Chan book | Leave a comment