Shek Kwu Chau Incinerator Dodgy Dealings and Outrageous Claims

- a Partial Summary

Unwise History Repeating

“Incinerators are a major source of pollution in the urban areas,” reported a 1989 Hong Kong government white paper on pollution. “They account for approximately 18% of all respirable particulates emitted into the atmosphere of the territory and can be a source also of trace quantities of highly toxic substances.” The incinerators were phased out, with the last of them – at Kwai Chung – ceasing operation in 1997.

Government Policy Not Followed; Waste Not Reduced - as Incineration Made Priority

The “Policy Framework for the Management of Municipal Solid Waste (2005-2014)” set out "a framework for requisite action of managing MSW in terms of waste avoidance and minimization, and reuse, recovery and recycling of suitable recyclable materials. It also proposed the adoption of advanced technologies to treat unavoidable waste in a sustainable manner [including incineration]."

Yet emphasis was then placed on incineration; measures like deposits for drink containers were simply ignored. In a damning report in 2015, the Audit Commission noted: "The over-estimation of the quantities of MSW recovered (and MSW generated) had distorted the effectiveness of the Government’s efforts to increase MSW recovery and recycling."1

This report prompted an investigation by the Legco Public Accounts Committee, which likewise produced a damning report, and found it "appalling and inexcusable that", among other things, "although the 2005 Policy Framework set a target of reducing the percentage of MSW disposed of at landfills from 60% in 2004 to 25% in 2014, more than 63% of MSW was disposed of at landfills in 2013 and 2014 respectively".2

Zero Waste Policies Ignored

While other places in the world such as San Francisco aim for zero waste to landfill or incineration, Hong Kong is ignoring such efforts; instead has "burn or bury" strategy with focus on landfill and incineration. Billions of dollars earmarked for these; minimal resources for recycling, reuse, reduction of packaging materials etc.

Outrageous Claims Contradict Science

EPD assistant director Elvis Au has boldly claimed that in the planned incinerator, high temperatures of at least 850°C can completely destroy organic pollutants. This is not true. The chemistry of incinerators is complex, and their emissions may include 200 or more kinds of organic compounds, including known carcinogens. (On RTHK radio, Au even said the incinerator temperatures can destroy heavy metals: this is absurd and impossible.)

EIA Company Also Advocated Incinerator and Contracted for Future Work

AECOM was responsible for the Environmental Impact Assessment to assess sites for incinerator. Perhaps at least some conflict of interest, as AECOM had helped advocate incineration for Hong Kong, and even before EIA complete signed a contract for future work on the incinerator project.

Wildlife Including Globally Threatened Porpoise Threatened

Shek Kwu Chau and surrounding waters are rich in wildlife, including Black Finless Porpoise, which is globally Vulnerable to extinction3. There are no convincing measures to prevent serious impacts on wildlife, notably the porpoise.

Dangerous Ideas for Dumping Ash in Landfill Island South of Cheung Chau

An incinerator can’t make waste magically disappear. Whatever does not go out through the chimney, stays behind as ash. As well as bottom ash from beneath the fire, there is fly ash from the chimney and the filters – and this can be highly toxic. According to the British Society of Ecological Medicine, “Fly ash contains very high concentrations of dioxins (over 98% of dioxins produced by an incinerator) and heavy metals making it some of the most toxic material on the planet.”

Plans call for the ash to be dumped in a landfill north of Tuen Mun. However, this will soon be full. It appears there are ideas for making a landfill island south of Cheung Chau, and using as an ash dump, much as Singapore disposes of its incinerator ash in an artificial island.

Yet it’s inevitable that toxins will eventually leak into the sea, and a major typhoon with storm surge could scour and scoop out the ash, poisoning southern waters.

Storm Surge, Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

Storm surge would also threaten the incinerator. Plus, there is ongoing global warming, accompanied by sea level rise and an evident increase in intensities of the strongest typhoons: in coming decades, these will be increasing threats to the incinerator and landfill islands.

The Price is High - Very High!

Based on some searching online, the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator would not only be among the world's largest waste incinerators, but also may well be the most expensive incinerator in the world.

Hong Kong infrastructure costs are reportedly high; and sometimes the discrepancies with other parts of the world are hard to explain - such as for the organic waste treatment plant for north Lantau, which will process 200 tonnes a day of food waste and cost HK$1.5 billion. Compare a planned plant in the UK, to handle 181 tonnes per day, with a cost of HK$187.5 million. The Hong Kong price is about eight times the British facility!

Landfills Have Longer Lives than Claimed

We've often been told the incinerator must be built very quickly as landfills will be full. Yet landfill lives have been extended, allowing more time for reviewing options, and implementing zero waste policies.

A Tourist Attraction?!

In an effort to boost the apparent attractiveness of the incinerator, the EPD has even suggested it could become a tourist attraction, increasing numbers of visitors to Cheung Chau.

Errors and Not Quite Truths

Various claims regarding the incinerator seem, on closer inspection, dubious or downright wrong. For instance, the EIA emphasised a supposed preponderance of northerly winds over Shek Kwu Chau, which would often blow airborne pollutants over the sea [oddly, not mentioning Wai Ling Ding]. Yet winds are not northerly so often; modelling indicates pollutants will at times reach Tuen Mun and beyond.

Martin Williams

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