Why is Environmental Protection Department like an incinerator salesman?

I’m an environmentalist living on Cheung Chau, so was especially interested when I learned of the Environmental Protection Department’s plans for a huge waste incinerator on an artificial island beside nearby Shek Kwu Chau. This was around two years ago, and I then believed the department’s claims the incinerator would include new technology ensuring emissions were clean and safe; though I was concerned it would blight a beautiful area, and threaten Hong Kong’s small population of the globally endangered finless porpoise.

            Since then, I have learned far more about waste treatment and incinerators, including major problems with incinerators. But also, disturbingly, I have found the Environmental Protection Department is extremely biased in favour of the incinerator, and unable to admit drawbacks with incinerators or really consider alternatives.

            This intransigence was demonstrated at a meeting on waste last month [December 2012], during which I voiced concerns regarding incineration, and said there are far better alternatives. As the meeting closed, EPD assistant director Elvis Au told the audience he had known me for two years, and my concerns were based on 40-year old incinerator designs.

            It’s true that Elvis has known me for close to two years – he serves as the EPD’s front man for the incinerator project, and in several meetings I’ve questioned him and attacked the plans, which remain in place despite strong opposition. But it’s nonsense to assert that my information on incinerators and health issues is outdated.

            Elvis did note that newer incinerators produce far less dioxins than early designs. But this ignores a host of other poison emissions and the highly toxic chimney ash – which are of great concern worldwide.

For instance, incinerators belch massive amounts of particulates. Indeed, when Hong Kong closed its three waste incinerators in the 1990s, a key reason was that they contributed around 20 percent of local particulate emissions. Even newer technologies are far from efficient in trapping particulates – particularly the tiniest ones, which can travel hundreds of kilometres, and when inhaled may penetrate deep into the lungs, aggravating asthma, causing lung damage, and increasing risk of premature death. Gases also contain a wide range of organic chemicals, along with metals like cadmium and mercury.

            If you still want to believe Elvis’ claims that the emissions will be clean and safe, consider that the design for Shek Kwu Chau incinerator include a 150-metre chimney. Then, I once suggested to Elvis that since the incinerator will be so fabulous, it should be sited beside the new government offices in Central. He replied that the emissions would lead to air pollutants over the harbour exceeding target levels. So, it won’t be so safe after all.

While discussions of incinerators often focus on emissions, the chimney ash is another major problem, as it may contain harmful chemicals that do not go up in the smoke, such as dioxins, mercury and other heavy metals. Indeed, it is listed as absolute hazardous waste in the European Waste Catalogue. 

            Elvis and others in the EPD have never mentioned this last fact, that I’ve noticed. But they do cite Europe when it suits their salesmanship, asserting that the incinerator emissions will meet European Union standards. If adopting a balanced approach to informing Hong Kong people, they might also highlight the European Parliament's goal to ensure that, by 2020, there is no incineration of waste that could be recycled or composted.

            But the EPD is quiet about this too. In the meeting, Elvis ignored my mention of new research finding significantly more cancers near waste incinerators in Spain. Nor does EPD tell of current research into infant deaths near UK incinerators, or high asthma rates around Detroit’s massive incinerator, or health concerns from badly disposed of chimney ash, or pollution from Singapore incinerators, or many other problems with modern incinerators around the world.

            I have asked Elvis why he is such an avid promoter of incineration. It is not based on science; and though he’s an engineer, this does not qualify him to make grand statements regarding human health. As yet, no reply.

            Nor have Elvis or other incinerator proponents made informed responses regarding an alternative treatment using plasma arc technology. This involves temperatures of perhaps 4000°C that blast molecules apart, creating a simple gas mixture plus material like solidified lava that seals heavy metals within. This is relatively new for waste treatment, but major facilities are being built and planned worldwide, with some generating electricity, others to make jet fuel and shipping fuel. Maybe similar facilities could be built here, and make Hong Kong a world leader in waste treatment.

            With no real answers as to why the EPD remains wedded to incineration, we can only guess at the reasons. My suspicion is that there have been deals made or nearly made behind the scenes, and companies are eagerly expecting their shares of the estimated HK$15 billion for the incinerator and its island, and HK$8 billion to extend the life of landfills during the eight-year construction period.

            Then, there’s the sad fact that under director Anissa Wong and former Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau, the EPD seemingly forgot about protecting our environment, and became besotted with building yet another grandiose infrastructure project at taxpayers’ expense.

Written for Ming Pao Weekly; Chinese version [see below] published on 12 January 2013
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Martin Williams

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Martin Williams's picture

身為熱愛環保的長洲居民,我特別關心環保署在石鼓洲附近人工島上興建巨型廢物焚化爐的計劃。時為約兩年前,我當時仍相信該署所指,新科技焚化爐可確保排放清潔安全;當然我也擔心建築物會扼殺美景,和威脅在香港小群居住的瀕危江豚。

         兩年過去,我對廢物處理和焚化爐(包括其主要問題)的認識已加深不少。令我大感不惑的是,環保署偏袒焚化爐、拒認弊端,更不認真考慮其他可行方法。

         署方不讓步的態度,於12月一場有關廢物的會議可見一斑。我在會上就焚化爐表示憂慮,也提出其他更好的方法。會議來到尾聲,環保署助理署長區偉光向觀眾表示認識我已有兩年,而我的憂心只是基於40年前的設計。

         沒錯,區先生認識我幾近兩年,期間他一直為署方的焚化爐項目站在前線。我在數個會議上都向他提問,並抨擊計劃為何在強烈反對下仍繼續存在。可是,把我的資料說成過時卻是無稽之談。

         區先生知道新型焚化爐比舊設計排放更少二噁英,卻忽略了兩個在國際上備受關注的問題:二噁英以外的各種有毒排放和高毒性的煙囪灰。

首先,焚化爐會吐出大量粒子。香港於1990年代關閉境內三個焚化爐,一大主因正是焚化爐釋出粒子佔本港整體空氣粒子高達兩成。就算新技術在鎖住粒子上也不甚有效,特別是那些體積最小的,它們能飛越千百米,深入肺部,能令哮喘惡化、引致肺部受損、加劇提前死亡風險。氣體中亦包含各種有機化學物,還有鎘和水銀等金屬。

         如果你仍希望相信區先生所說,排放將清潔安全,且看石鼓洲焚化爐設計中的150米高煙囪。那時,我曾向區先生提議,既然焚化爐樣樣都好,不如把它設在中環新政府總部旁。他回答稱,排放會令海港空氣污染物超標。換言之,排放並不那樣安全。

除了排放物,煙囪灰也是一大問題。不少沒有化煙的有害化學物,例如二噁英、水銀和其他重金屬都可出現其中。事實上,在歐洲廢棄物目錄上,煙囪灰便列為絕對危險的廢物。

         區先生和其他環保署仝人從沒指出最後這點,卻在推銷過程中聲稱焚化爐排放將合乎歐盟標準。公平起見,他們也應向市民披露歐洲議會已制定目標,確保到了2020年,所有可回收或可變成肥料的廢物將不作焚化處理。

         環保署對此也默不作聲。區先生在會上無視了我提出的新研究資料:西班牙廢棄物焚化爐附近癌症比率高企。環保署也沒有提及世界各地多項有關現代化焚化爐的最新研究:英國焚化爐附近地區的幼兒死亡率、底特律巨爐附近的高哮喘率、不妥善棄置煙囪灰所帶來的健康問題、新加坡焚化爐引起的污染和其他問題。

         我曾問區先生他為什麼那樣熱衷推銷焚化。這樣並不科學,即使他是工程師,也不應就人類健康作出冠冕堂皇的聲明。至此仍沒回覆。

         區先生或其他焚化爐支持者,也未對等離子電弧廢棄物處理技術作出具備理據的回應。這種技術採用高達攝氏4000度的溫度來爆破份子,化成簡單的氣體混合物,還有能鎖住重金屬、類似固化溶岩的物質。這種技術相對較新,但世界各地已陸續建設和計劃主要設施,有些能發電,也有些製成飛機或航運燃料。香港也許可以興建類似設施,在廢物處中領先世界。

         環保署沒真正答覆,我們只能猜想它為何鍾情焚化。難道背後已達成或將達成協議?畢竟焚化爐和人工島估值150億港元,興建期間堆填區壽命再增8年也會帶來80億港元利益,有關公司大概正虎視眈眈。

         可悲的是,環保署在署長王倩儀與前環境局局長邱騰華的領導下,似乎忘了保護環境的本份,成了沉迷於耗用公帑建造另一巨大基建項目的部門。

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