Incinerator-promoting Hong Kong EPD unfazed by poor data

Letter I sent S China Morning Post, published on 22 Aug 2013:

Alternatives to waste strategy are necessary
In his letter ("Cement plan not yet viable refuse solution [1]", August 16), Elvis Au, assistant director of environmental protection, criticised a trial by Green Island Cement of a project to develop a waste incineration facility.
Mr Au is instead a staunch advocate of a waste incinerator he likes to describe as a "waste-to-energy" scheme. Yet while the government aims to build one of the world's largest waste incinerators, he conveniently omits to mention that there have been no trials whatsoever of such a facility in Hong Kong - that's unless you count Hong Kong's former waste incinerators, which were shut down last century for being too filthy.
In Mr Au's view, a "thorough environmental impact assessment study" is required for the Green Island Cement plan. Yet such a study is also lacking for the proposed Shek Kwu Chau incinerator scheme. All that I am aware of is an assessment focusing on selecting an incinerator site. This was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Department, which, conveniently, was also responsible for passing the study.
Information in the impact assessment report is often scant. For instance, emissions including particulates are a major concern, yet what little data there is has evidently been plucked out of thin air, rather than from trials involving Hong Kong waste.
I noticed no mention of studies finding links between proximity to incinerators and increased risks of birth defects and cancer. When it comes to its own project, the department seems unperturbed by data that is lacking or muddled.
Previous letters have noted issues with figures on waste, which should be crucial to determining strategies. The picture is hazy, thanks to varying methods of estimation.
Mr Au says Hong Kong's waste strategy needs "the joint efforts of the entire community", yet the government remains fixated on an outmoded strategy centred on dumping and burning waste, whilst showing no interest in considering alternatives and holding meaningful, open discussions.
Martin Williams, director, Hong Kong Outdoors

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Another letter to S China Morning Post, published on 30 January 2014:

Au must come clean on new incinerator
Elvis W. K. Au, deputy director of environmental protection, continues as chief standard bearer for the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator project, with his letter ("Shek Kwu Chau chosen as site for incinerator after exhaustive process", January 18). He again makes questionable assertions.
Mr Au claims that potential health impacts are included in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the incinerator site. Yet with no trials involving Hong Kong waste, the EIA just states the emissions will reach European Union standards.
In a meeting of the Advisory Council on the Environment, Mr Au asserted that the incinerator technology would "completely destroy organic pollutants". This assertion is also made in an Environmental Protection Department assessment of waste treatment technologies.
Does the department have grounds for making such a bold claim?
All the information I have seen on incineration indicates that it produces substantial amounts of organic pollutants, and the pollutants removed from emissions make the chimney ash even more toxic. If the department has evidence to the contrary, it should be presented. If not, it is surely incumbent upon Mr Au to present a more honest picture of incineration.
This honest appraisal could also mention research linking incinerators to health impacts such as cancers and birth defects, and of cases in which incinerators have suffered accidents or created excessive emissions.
While incineration cannot destroy all organic pollutants, more advanced plasma arc waste treatment exposes materials to temperatures of 4,000-7,000 degrees Celsius - blasting molecules apart. There are minimal emissions, and inert glassy rock instead of ash.
The department has dismissed recommendations for adopting plasma arc waste treatment, relying partly on the increasingly outdated technology assessment, and with claims that a plant in Japan closed because of technical issues. Yet according to Richard Fish, president of technology provider Alter NRG, "the reasons for the closure were related specifically to a lack of feedstock - not problems with the technology".
Does the department have evidence to the contrary? If not, honesty is again called for.
In fact, after resolving early technical issues, the Japanese plant led to construction of the world's largest plasma arc waste treatment plant in Teesside, UK, which will begin commissioning within weeks.
There are technology suppliers and partners willing to work with Hong Kong, perhaps with a pilot plant as a step towards a facility that can be built much faster and at considerably less expense than the Shek Kwu Chau incinerator.
Dr Martin Williams, director, Hong Kong Outdoors

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Elvis Au of EPD responded to above letter, but only selectively. I sent this, published on 27 February 2014:

Research claims link between cancer and incinerator emissions

While it is good that Elvis W. K. Au, assistant director of environmental protection, took the time to answer my letter ("Au must come clean on new incinerator", January 30), his response ("Incinerator would meet EU standards", February 21) was more political than environmentally sound. Notably, he avoided answering my allegation that his claims incinerator technology would "completely destroy organic pollutants" are untrue.

He again cites European Union standards, as if these ensure emissions will be clean. Yet when I previously asked him why the incinerator could not be sited by the government offices in Central, he said this would lead to pollution over the harbour exceeding air quality objectives. If the emissions will be so pure, why will there be a 150-metre-high chimney?

As Mr Au suggested, I tried looking online to find real-time information on incinerator emissions. I could not find it, but stumbled across research published last year, linking proximity to Taiwan's incinerators to increased risk of children showing delayed development in the gross motor domain. This adds to recent research suggesting incinerator emissions cause health problems including cancer and premature births.

While Mr Au latches on to any problems with potential alternatives to incineration, he blithely ignores this research, which should be cause for concern in a department overseeing environmental protection.

I also checked the Guidebook for the Application of Waste to Energy Technologies cited by Mr Au, and found it is authored by engineers, and funded by a development bank aiming to support incineration, including a project in Haiti that's controversial partly as, like in Hong Kong, it will treat waste so moist that it cannot be burnt unassisted.

But how about the views of medical experts? The British Society of Ecological Medicine assessed risks, and concluded, "a policy of building more incinerators and cement kilns will mean that many more lives will be lost unnecessarily from cancer, including those of children, more people will die prematurely from heart disease, there will be an increase in birth defects and health costs will increase".

Given such concerns, we should consider far cleaner plasma arc technology today, not some time in the future. Indeed, Zhuhai plans to build a substantial plasma arc waste treatment facility.

The Environmental Protection Department is organising a trip to study waste treatment in Europe next month; it would be negligent not to visit the new plasma facility in Teesside, England.

Dr Martin Williams, Cheung Chau