Trash TalkThe eco-friendly town in Tseung Kwan O has yet to live up to its name with its unsettled stench and lingering filth

Christine Fong Kwok-shan was happy to finally be able to open some windows in her Lohas Park apartment over the past few weeks following the August heat wave — for a breath of fresh air, an increasingly scarce commodity in the overcrowded city.

“The landfill is just like a giant garbage bin,” describes the Sai Kung district counsellor. “The disgusting odour smells like a mix of rotten eggs, sulphur and a public toilet, no matter which brand of air fragrance you use. It’s the worst in May and June because of the direction of the wind. ”

Fong’s HK$5 million home is just 800 metres from the Tseung Kwan O landfill, which is still the subject of heated debate over a planned extension that aims to solve the city’s notorious waste problem. It wasn’t long ago the Legislative Council voted off the massive expansion of the Tseung Kwan O landfill site, and the government has boldly returned with a second proposal.

The new proposal was submitted to the Sai Kung district council for review with two amendments made in May: “The extended part will only be used for dumping construction waste,” said Environmental Department head Wong Sin-yee. “We’ll spend some $7.2 million to build additional deodorisers and extraction wells.”

Residents, however, are sceptical about the definition of “construction waste,” as the government failed to define it clearly. “We have no idea whether electronic waste from construction sites would count. That could mean a possible leakage of heavy metals that pollute the land,” Fong says.

Fong’s agony is shared by residents living as far away as Clear Water Bay, and Chapman Chan Kai-wai, chairman of an alliance from Ocean Shores — a residential estate about two kilometres away from the landfill. “Residents have to keep their windows closed and air-conditioners on because of the smell,” he states. “It’s worse when the weather gets sluggish, especially right before a typhoon or storm.”

“[A] quiet housing estate right above the MTR station with plenty of green areas is rare to find nowadays,” says Fong, who is also a building engineer. “It’s a pity the area has wrongfully designed town planning. It deserves a much higher price tag than it has now.”

Coincidence or not, the Lohas Park — both its first phase Capitol and second phase Le Prestige offering over 3,600 flats — has lower prices than many of its Tseung Kwan O neighbours. Units were demanding around $5,200 per square foot in July, when Cheung Kong’s similar Metro Town sold at about 17 percent higher: $6,100 per square foot.

Centaline Property senior branch manager Joe Chu Shek-ming, however, attributed the cause of lower rents and sales rates to inadequate facilities and infrastructure — the one and only one housing project above Lohas Park station so far. Nevertheless, he admitted the odious smell had an indirect impact on buyers’ psychology. “Who doesn’t want the best deal with his lifelong savings spent?” he says. “Living near a landfill became an issue that worried many buyers.”

While all eyes are on Tseung Kwan O, it is important to remember Hong Kong once had 13 landfills now restored as recreational parks, golf courses and an ecological park. Two others are still in operation, in Ta Kwu Ling and Tuen Mun, to digest the city’s 16,000 tonnes of waste every day — a volume equivalent to roughly 1,000 double-decker buses.

Nevertheless, residential development right above the site is rare because effects on residents’ safety and health remain unknown. “Living above the landfill can be a risk if it subsides after the garbage shrinks in size years later,” notes Chu Lee-man, a far from optimistic life science professor from Chinese University. “The emission of harmful gases such as methane is almost unavoidable … We have little chance of living above the landfill but right next to it, just like the case of Lohas Park. It’s a problem with town planning. They knew there was a landfill nearby but wouldn’t stop development. Is Hong Kong desperately short of land? I doubt … If development is a must, residents should at least be well-informed about the ‘inconvenient truth’ of landfills before a purchase,” Chu summarises.

Standing on her balcony, Fong can see a queue of garbage trucks crawling back and forth on Wan Po Road, the path leading to the landfill three times a day every day. “Just look at this, it’s not hard to imagine our woe,” she laments. “I’m still optimistic about the future of Lohas Park — but not until the extension of the landfill sites has completely come to a halt.”