Highway builders who buried protected trees under tonnes of rubble – in breach of their permit to build – ignored hundreds of demands from environmental auditors to mend their ways, with auditors eventually giving up and marking longstanding offences as “solved” on official documents.
Since ground broke on highway upgrades for the West Kowloon Reclamation Development in February 2016, site inspectors made over 700 petitions to permit holder Highways Department, seeking to clean up oil and chemical spills, solve dust problems and protect transplanted trees and saplings.
But Highways failed repeatedly to follow the basic instructions of the project’s environmental permit or the requests of its auditors, Environmental Pioneers & Solutions Limited.
Over four years, auditors made multiple demands to Highways to clean up its act: 41 near-identical demands – each time marked “resolved” – covering wastewater infractions; 35 addressing chemical spill problems; 22 on oil spills and leakage; and 53 infringements on material storage.
According to the project’s Environmental Monitoring and Auditing Manual, the contractor is required to carry out remedial actions “immediately upon receipt of the Environmental Team’s advice. The Engineer’s Representative shall check with the Contractor to ensure that appropriate actions has [sic] been taken accordingly and can satisfy the environmental protection and pollution control requirement [sic].”
But clearly this process was not followed. Transit Jam visited the main construction site on 7 March and found the site in disarray, including improperly stored construction waste, no dust control on excavations, stagnant water pools, unmarked trenches, garbage piled up against safety enclosures and multiple oil and chemical spills: many of the issues first raised by auditors more than four years ago.
Take tree protection for example: from day one, auditors called out Highways for failing to respect Tree Protection Zones.
For one specific zone, the “HA Tree Protection Zone” the builders were cautioned against dumping construction materials.
On 29 August 2016, after seven warnings, the auditors marked the problem as “resolved”. But barely a week later, contractors reneged on their promises and site visits found the rules yet again ignored.
Auditors then filed 18 new bi-weekly cautions, until 19 May 2017 when the problem was once again marked “resolved”.
This cycle continued, with a total of 85 cautions for the the HA TPZ, including a total of five times when the offence was marked “resolved” when it clearly was not.
A lawyer familiar with similar projects, who wished to remain anonymous, said the practice of writing off problems as “solved” was not necessarily fraud. “If there’s construction waste burying a tree, and the waste is removed, then the problem is technically solved… even if the next day new waste is dumped on the tree,” she said. “Obviously it’s a very short term way to look at things.”
Highways brushed off questions about its environmental infringements, claiming the bulk of the complaints referred to tree transplant nurseries in Sheung Shui, on the mainland border and far away from the construction site.
“Since the nursery is located at a relatively remote area, the Consultant and the Contractor, with focus mainly put on major construction activities in the West Kowloon Development area, have failed to accord appropriate weightings to the ‘observations’ raised by the auditor,” the department said in an email to Transit Jam.
However, Highways’ own analysis is inaccurate: in fact, of 716 warnings from auditors, just 222, around a third, relate to trees. Some 494 – that is, 69% – are related to poor construction practice, such as improper storage of chemicals or other infringements.