Protection Department (EPD) has achieved significant improvements
in Hong Kong's environment over the past two years, especially in
air and water quality. Yet, paradoxically, the number of people
complaining about pollution has remained steady. People have woken
up to the advantages of a cleaner environment, and the standards
for what constitutes an acceptable environment have become higher
than ever. Improvements in one area only help to highlight the shortcomings
in another. This is a welcome development because it indicates community
support for environmental protection programmes. But it also raises
the issue of how best to respond to complaints and violations.
want action and a sympathetic ear. We have introduced many improvements
to our handling of complaints, as described in the Customer Service
and Partnership chapter. We have also continued to refine our enforcement
and prosecution capabilities, to ensure that violations witnessed
by the public and our own staff are acted upon. New technology and
tighter resources create demands and constraints on our enforcement
programme, and have necessitated some changes in the way we do things.
Nonetheless, we are committed to upholding anti-pollution laws in
this ever-changing environment.
when they perceive damage is being done to their environment or
themselves by excessive pollution. Complaints reached a high point
in 2000 when more than 25 000 complaints were received, coinciding
with worsening smog and higher public expectations. The figure quickly
tapered off to about 20 000 and has stayed there, even though in
the past three years street-level air pollution is much improved,
water quality in parts of Victoria Harbour and several beaches is
better and construction noise is down. Complaints about these problems
have been replaced with concerns about other pollution sources.
air pollution complaints have remained steady even though the number
of smoky vehicles has been reduced by more than 60 per cent as a
result of our air programme (see Air chapter for details). The problem
of smog and regional air pollution has replaced worries about street-level
emissions, and the EPD is receiving more complaints than ever about
general air quality during high Air Pollution Index days, often
through the media.
of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in March 2003 also led
to more complaints. The outbreak focused attention on poor environmental
hygiene, which was feared to be a factor in the spread of the disease.
More people than ever complained about the illegal disposal of waste
and water-related issues such as broken pipes and discharges in
backlanes. The EPD joined the government's Team Clean to improve
hygiene in the community. Inspections and other enforcement work
were stepped up in tandem with other departments to rectify such
problems as illegal connections to storm water drains and improperly
maintained septic tanks (see boxes for details). This attention
to hygiene may also have contributed to an increase in complaints
against restaurants, although prosecutions were down.
The EPD deals
with most complaints over the phone by explaining the law and the
EPD's policies to callers. For serious complaint cases that require
follow-up, and for initiatives such as Team Clean, the department
has an enforcement team of about 330 officers who make inspections
and, where necessary, gather evidence for prosecution.
As the main
enforcer of environmental protection laws, the EPD has had to adjust
to many changes over the years. Increases in the number of laws,
in complaints, in public expectations and in industry demands for
more assistance and consultation have led to a number of refinements
to our enforcement work. Six regional Local Control Offices have
been set up to bring officers closer to the sources of pollution.
Partnership programmes have been established to ensure operators
are well-informed about their legal obligations towards the environment.
Our complaints response system has been updated to enable speedy
action. New technologies, such as a geographical information system
(GIS) and webcams, have been adopted to enhance our response time
and our monitoring work. Recently, we have had to make further adjustments
as the EPD, like all other government departments, faces budget
The EPD's enforcement
work involves conducting routine inspections and responding to complaints.
To save on resources, these functions are being combined. A pilot
"beat" system has been introduced on a trial basis, in
which officers out on routine work are on call to respond to complaints.
Palm-held devices are being developed to enable officers to input
simple data on site and download it onto their computers, rather
than having to type it out when they return to the office. More
sophisticated mobile computing will be introduced next year to enable
more information to be recorded on site, such as statements for
in 2003 has been targeted enforcement actions against suspected
polluters. These usually require night patrols as this is when the
offences tend to occur. Targeted patrols were carried out against
illegal livestock waste and oil discharges - persistent problems
that are difficult to detect in routine inspections. The Local Control
Offices are also continuing to crack down on improper sewage connections
in domestic premises to prevent people from dumping their sewage
in local waters without treatment (see boxes for details).
outbreak helped to focus people's attention on the cleanliness
of their surroundings, particularly situations that might
help to spread the disease. A number of complaints and comments
were received about the misconnection of sewers, in which
residential, commercial or industrial premises illegally discharge
foul water down storm drains, rather than sewers. In view
of this, the EPD stepped up inspections to identify and rectify
misconnections, and worked closely with other government departments,
the concerned District Councils and the Incorporated Owners
of affected buildings. One area of focus was the Kai Tak nullah,
a major storm water channel in southeast Kowloon which has
long been a source of complaint for its bad odours.
is surrounded by dense urban development. In 2003 more than
20 misconnections were identified and rectified, including
Block 22 of the Tung Tau Estate, a primary school and several
residential buildings in San Po Kong and Wong Tai Sin. As
a result, the pollution load in the nullah was drastically
reduced by 260 kilogrammes per day of biological oxygen demand
- the equivalent of sewage from 4 700 people. The odour problem
is also much reduced, fish have returned to the nullah and
egrets are feeding from its waters.
are intended to encourage compliance with the law, but inevitably
offences occur. Fortunately, these are decreasing in number, but
at the same time they have become more difficult to prosecute as
more offenders plead not-guilty. Companies have financial reasons
for avoiding environmental convictions, particularly for the construction
industry because it means points will be deducted when they tender
for government works contracts.
The EPD set
up a Central Prosecution Section in 2001 which is responsible for
training and prosecuting cases. In 2003, 577 cases were prosecuted,
a number that has dropped significantly since reaching a peak in
2000 of 1 824 cases. Part of the reason for the decline is
the economic downturn, which resulted in less noise-producing activity.
Partnership programmes with the construction industry, restaurants,
vehicle repair workshops and property management firms have also
helped (see Customer Service and Partnership chapter for details).
Still, as mentioned, those cases that are prosecuted have become
more complex. The Central Prosecution Section deals with most of
the trial cases and provides EPD officers with on-going training
in gathering evidence and preparing cases.
has taken the step of publishing its prosecution policy on its website
in the spirit of upholding justice and increasing transparency (see
The prosecution policy describes some of the guiding principles
that are involved in deciding whether and how to prosecute. Just
because a person is suspected of an environmental offence, it does
not necessarily mean he will automatically face prosecution. The
policy states: "In coming to a decision, the prosecutor
must examine all the factors and the circumstances of the case,
including the sufficiency of the evidence and whether a prosecution
is in the interest of the public. No two cases are ever exactly
the same and so the prosecutor must exercise an important discretion,
on behalf of the community, as to whether a prosecution should be
instituted and decide, once the process has begun, how a prosecution
will be conducted."
of openness and fairness underscore all of our enforcement work.
As the public raises the goalposts - and as the EPD strives to provide
a cleaner environment - enforcement activities will need to be adjusted
to meet new demands and constraints. The rights of operators and
of the public need to be balanced. But ultimately the goal is for
the greater good. By encouraging greater compliance by potential
polluters, it is hoped the general public can enjoy a better environment
and have less reason to complain.
Mun River is one of the EPD's success stories, but it also
illustrates the lingering impacts of pollution. Years ago,
water quality in the river was poor, but a combination of
measures to reduce and divert pollution loads resulted in
the river being graded "good" in 1993. However,
bad odours continued to be emitted from the pollutants that
had settled on the river bottom. In 2001, work began on a
project to address this problem. In the first phase, costing
$50 million and completed in December 2002, bioremediation
was used to treat the sediment and dredging and river-bed
lining work were carried out. As a result, most of the source
of the odour was eliminated, the sediment changed in appearance
from black to brown, and a survey by the Civil Engineering
Department found 92 per cent of Sha Tin residents felt the
odour problem had improved. The second and final phase of
the project, costing $40 million, began in September 2003.
The remaining, less-polluted river sections will be treated
and improvements in sediment and water quality will be monitored
up to July 2006.
Mun River project has involved close co-operation with various
sectors of the community. The EPD's Local Control Office (LCO)
has maintained close contacts with the Sha Tin District Council
and arranged visits to the river by Legislative Council members.
Various activities were organised to promote public awareness,
such as a concert, essay competition and carnival. The LCO
also worked with the Education and Manpower Bureau to promote
awareness of the project in local schools.