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Hong Kong contractor charged over illegal asbestos removal work

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Hong Kong contractor charged over illegal asbestos removal work

Contractor accused of unauthorised demolition work at old government blocks and releasing dust-like cancer-causing particles into the air

Seven summonses have been issued to contractor Hung Key Cheong Yip, accusing it of demolishing buildings without taking proper precautions to stop cancer-causing asbestos being released into the air.

On Monday and on September 10, Eastern Court will hear charges the work was carried out illegally, an investigation obstructed and false reports that the buildings were free of asbestos provided, said a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department. The spokesman would not confirm whether the charges were against the company or individual workers.

The company faced claims in May that it started demolishing three old government blocks in February in Borrett Road, Mid-Levels, without using an asbestos consultant. Concerned residents alerted the South China Morning Post to the demolition work taking place close to the English Schools Foundation’s Island School, Carmel School and several kindergartens.

Inhaling the dust-like particles can cause the lung disease asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Blue and brown asbestos have been banned in Hong Kong since 1996.

Carrying out unauthorised asbestos removal attracts a maximum fine of HK$200,000, plus HK$20,000 for each day the work is carried out, along with up to six months in prison. Failing to inform the government carries a maximum HK$200,000 fine, while obstructing the investigation has a fine of up to HK$50,000.

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People living near the site say the fines are still well below the estimated HK$3 million cost of bringing in a registered asbestos consultant to clear the blocks.

“There’s a clear loophole in the legal system. People who are doing this are not penalised in a harsh way,” said one Italian man who moved his family out of a nearby apartment after learning of the work. “It’s not in the landlord’s interest [to pay for a consultant].”

The resident sought advice from lawyers but was told it would be almost impossible to find recourse.

The department said it felt the fines were enough of a deterrent.

Fines and jail terms are higher in the United States. In 2006, a father and son were ordered to pay US$23 million and serve 19 years and 25 years in jail for exposing countless people to potentially fatal lung diseases. For 10 years, they ran an asbestos removal operation in New York.

The Borrett Road site is owned by Cheung Kong (Holdings), which said 3-1/2 floors in one 17-storey block had been removed. One storey was removed from each of the other two blocks. It blamed Hung Key Cheong Yip for providing misinformation and had instructed another consultant to carry out a new assessment.

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