On April 18, 2011, Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance quashed an environmental protection administrator’s decision to approve key elements of a multibillion-dollar road and bridge project that will span the Pearl River.

The case was brought by Chu Yee-wah, a retiree who lives close to where the bridge will make landfall in Hong Kong and who suffers from heart disease and diabetes. She contended that the construction and operation of the project would negatively impact her health. The Firm acted pro bono as special counsel on environmental law to Madam Chu’s Hong Kong legal team.

The Court said the director of environmental protection had no power to grant an environmental permit for construction and operation of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge boundary crossing facilities and a 12-kilometer link road. The absence of a separate analysis of likely environmental conditions without the projects meant the impact assessment report approved in 2009 did not meet the required standard and therefore should not have been approved.

The Court agreed with Madam Chu that the purpose of an air quality impact assessment is not just to provide evidence that air quality will meet Hong Kong’s cumulative standards after the bridge goes into operation. The report should also satisfy the environmental regulator and the general public that the project’s proponent has considered and properly assessed ways of minimizing the bridge’s environmental impact, the Court stated in its decision.

Many companies currently operating in Hong Kong are concerned that the government is not doing enough to reduce transportation-related emissions, a view reinforced when the environmental impact assessment report for the road and bridge project was published two years ago.

Construction of the Hong Kong section was scheduled to begin at the end of last year and be completed in 2016, but work has yet to begin. The estimated cost of the entire project, including the bridge and its connecting facilities, is 72.9 billion yuan (US$10.5 billion). The project is intended to expand Hong Kong’s role as a regional hub for air and marine cargo and open up the currently underdeveloped western part of the Pearl River delta to new industrial and commercial operations.

Since Baker Botts is a foreign registered firm in Hong Kong, Partner David Renton worked with local barristers and solicitors in preparing and presenting the case on behalf of Madam Chu.

“Although Hong Kong’s air quality standards lag behind those of comparable international cities,” Renton said, “Hong Kong does have an effective environmental impact assessment law. The Hong Kong courts have made it clear they will not allow the Government to cut corners when it comes to assessing and mitigating the environmental impact of its own projects.”