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The Fudge over the Dredge Report

A plagiarized environmental impact assessment for a controversial dredging project in Shenzhen has caused outrage, and a halt to the tourism scheme that conservationists always opposed

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

People gather to look at birds at Shenzhen Bay on January 29, 2019

A high-profile tourism project in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province has been shelved for now after environmental groups found that much of its environmental impact assessment (EIA) was either fake or plagiarized. When Shenzhen Transportation Bureau released the EIA online for public comment on March 19, which would allow a scheme to dredge a new channel in the bay for longer sightseeing cruises, environmentalists immediately smelled something fishy.  

Not only were environmental experts and a majority of the public already opposed to the project, as it is close to ecologically sensitive coastal wetlands and bird habitats, but the EIA itself proved problematic. Parts of it appeared to have been copied directly from a previous EIA for another city in Guangdong, with the name of the city and other significant details left unchanged.  

These errors immediately drew wide criticism from netizens who suspected the EIA had been plagiarized. In late March, the Shenzhen Navigation Route Affairs Center who had contracted the report issued an apology. The institution that compiled the EIA, the Guangzhou-based South China Sea Institute of Oceanology (SCSIO) affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also posted an online apology for the fraudulent EIA which was authored by engineers at the institute. It stated that an investigation was underway. Shenzhen Transportation Bureau demanded termination of the contract with the SCSIO.  

This EIA report scandal is the tip of the iceberg over the widespread lack of credibility of EIAs in recent years. In March 2018, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that 143 EIA institutes were found to have been involved in misconduct that broke regulations, and 256 engineers responsible for EIA report writing were punished.  

Conservationists had opposed dredging in Shenzhen Bay from the start. The planned route with an initial estimated cost of over 100 million yuan (US$14.2m), would cut a channel 120 meters wide and 3.1 meters deep, which would enable the expansion of scenic cruises in the area. 

Conservationists worried that the route of the dredged channel, only 200 meters from a mangrove area and a habitat for migratory birds, would severely impact the environment and threaten the survival of birds and bottom-dwelling marine species. According to an online poll conducted by Guangdong newspaper the Nanfang Daily, 79 percent of respondents opposed the dredging project, saying they were concerned about its potential ecological impact. 

Shenzhen’s Transportation Bureau said the channel would allow cruise operators to offer trips to the east side of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge, including the Talent Park, an urban park, and the Mangrove Ecological Park. 

Ecological Destruction
Ma Haipeng, executive secretary of the Shenzhen Blue Ocean Conservation Association, noticed the EIA report online on March 25. As a local environmental NGO, Ma’s team studied the report thoroughly and found a vital omission: The project is located inside a key protected bird habitat. The EIA completely overlooked this fact and did not mention any impact caused by the dredging and the follow-up operations on migratory birds in the area.  

Shenzhen Bay lies between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and it has a typical wetland ecological system, effective for climate adjustment, water purification and natural disaster prevention.  

Futian Mangrove Protection Zone is home to over 200 bird species, among which 23 are national key protected bird species. Shenzhen Bay is a key stop on the Siberia to Australia bird migration route. Bird watching is popular in Shenzhen Bay for domestic birders from November through March. This January, it was estimated that over 100,000 birds including egrets, gulls and geese visited the area. To protect the birds, Shenzhen authorities banned all fishing in the bay from 2014.  

“The controversy about this EIA is its complete lack of evaluation of the project’s impact on the migratory birds and mangroves,” said Cai Zhiyang, associate professor at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Southern University of Science and Technology. He said that previous studies have tracked the birds’ density and activities in this area. “Through wireless tracking, satellite monitoring and ringing of birds, scientists can track the water birds as they go back and forth between habitats in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The dredging project in eastern Shenzhen Bay includes the area in which water birds are active,” Cai said. 

Cai said that migrating birds need sufficient food and space in winter in the Shenzhen Bay area, and human activities in the channel where the dredging is planned will disturb the habitat. This may cause migratory birds to abandon the habitat due to construction and subsequent pleasure cruises.  

The EIA stated that more than 76 hectares of seabed - known as the benthic region - would be destroyed. “The loss of benthic marine species due to the dredging of the new channel will result in a loss of food for migratory birds. The dredged mud and sand will spread even further and impact an evenlarger area,” Cai said. “Moreover, the channel will need regular dredging, so the impacts will continue.” 

Wang Yongjun, a Shenzhen-based ecologist who specializes in mangroves told local media that water pollution caused by the project will impact mangrove seed dispersal. Mangroves have a unique propagation system known as viviparity - producing live offspring - where they germinate seeds on the branch, which then drop into the water and either take root or float away.  

The Cross-border Environment Concern Association (CECA), an NGO in Guangdong Province, also pointed out that phase one of the dredging project will intrude into the wetland red line area and likely intrude on the mangrove ecological red line area in Shenzhen Bay in the second phase.  

According to Ma Haipeng, the red line system strictly prohibits any land reclamation that causes changes to the natural marine ecology or destroys wetland ecological system functions. If the channel does not include dredging activities to disturb the water momentum, the project can pass the EIA. Otherwise, it cannot.  

Plagiarized Assessment
Challenged by inquiries from the public, on March 25, Shenzhen Transportation Bureau responded that phase one of the dredging project in Shenzhen Bay was not included in the provincial ecological red line system.  

Wang Yongjun pointed out that the ecological system in Shenzhen Bay is holistic and includes Shenzhen Futian Mangrove Reserve and the Mai Po Wetland Park in Hong Kong, thus the project should assess the environmental impact on both wetland reserves.  

What really enraged the public, though, was the discovery that much of the EIA for the Shenzhen Bay project had been plagiarized from another EIA report for a port project in Zhanjiang, 500 kilometers from Shenzhen.  

Ma Haipeng’s team found that Shenzhen was referred to as Zhanjiang 35 times. Furthermore, although the project was announced in December 2019, much of the data collected by the contractor for the EIA dated from 2017 and 2018.  

These obvious errors aroused suspicions about the science, effectiveness and accuracy of the EIA.  

Under increasing scrutiny, on March 27, Shenzhen Transportation Bureau withdrew the EIA from public view and the SCSIO started investigating. On April 1, the SCSIO published its findings and admitted that the report had been copied from an earlier EIA. “Part of the report is identical to the qualitative analysis of another report conducted by the same institute on the renovation of a navigation channel for 300,000-ton vessels at Zhanjiang Port; Xu Yufen, the person in charge of the EIA report for the Shenzhen Bay project, who did not follow the regular procedure and delivered the report without authorization from the SCSIO, is fully responsible for the fraud. Due to insufficient supervision of its employees’ work, the SCSIO as the contractor to provide technical consulting to the project led to Xu Yufen’s fraudulence in presenting the unfinished report,” the investigation said. The SCSIO said it would terminate the contract, return the full cost immediately, and promised no future connection to the project.  

Xu Yufen was fired. Environmentalists questioned how one person could be blamed for the debacle. China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation posted a public notice on its Weibo account on April 1 asking the SCSIO to disclose the names of everyone involved in the fraudulent EIA, who should also be held accountable.  

Guangdong Province Ecological Environment Department vowed to crack down on fraud in EIA processes, announced an investigation and promised to penalize those found responsible.  

Wang Yongjun told the Nanfang Daily that the construction company for the project should also take responsibility. During the bidding process, the party that issued the contract for the EIA was aware that the SCSIO did not have expertise in conducting research on birds, and so it should have found an appropriate contractor to suit the local conditions.  

Wang Yongjun took part in an expert panel to analyze the project in early 2019. “All the experts, including those from Peking University, clearly expressed their opposition to the project and presented their opinions to Shenzhen Transportation Bureau,” Wang said. “As far as I understood, the project was killed by the participating experts, but I did not expect Shenzhen Transportation Bureau would proceed with the EIA report after consulting with experts on this.” 

Development Ambition
The dredging project is primarily aimed at expanding tourism in the form of sightseeing cruises. The overall tourism project is named “Sightseeing Shenzhen from the Sea.” The first sightseeing boat was launched in November 2017, departing Shekou Cruise Center and Shekou Port to Shenzhen Bay Bridge and back for a twice-daily voyage of 100 minutes.  

Song Dingceng, director of the Tourism and Real Estate Research Center at the China Development Institute, contended the tourism project is valuable for local development. “It’s an important and very astounding perspective to see Shenzhen from the sea, and it will allow more people to realize how beneficial the ocean is to the city,” Song said.  

Zhou Junmin, director of the China Development Institute, who has been living in Shenzhen for more than 20 years, said the sea tourism project was intended to help push momentum for the city apart from its already established industries. But as it stands, the project has limited prospects due to inconvenient transportation at the port and the restricted sailing routes for the cruise ships. Official statistics show that by September 2019, only 50,000 tourists had gone on the boat trips. 

The fake EIA did point out the obstacles to developing the project: The views are not inspiring, either by day or by night, and the sightseeing boats are not of a high standard.  

That was why local authorities decided to explore whether the route could be extended under the Shenzhen Bay Bridge as the views would be better and the trips more interesting.  

The planned channel from Shekou Port to Shenzhen Estuary would be a 300-ton class coastal waterway of 17 kilometers and is projected to cost 100 million yuan (US$15.5m). The first phase of the project to Talent Park requires four kilometers of dredged waterway, and the area of sea used for dredging is about 48.5 hectares, which does not occupy the shoreline. 

Ma Haipeng said that although the project was described as dredging, in fact it would be a completely new channel. After the dredging, more investment would be required, such as building new pleasure cruisers, constructing a wharf in Talent Park, installing a night light show and constructing anti-impact measures for Shenzhen Bay Bridge. At the same time, Shenzhen Bay is an area of high siltation, requiring regular dredging which is already costly. The first tranche of the investment, 100 million yuan (US$14.1m) is only earmarked for the early dredging. 

The Sea View Shenzhen project officially began in September 2019 when local authorities announced the upgrading and dredging of the cruise channel. In early November 2019, Shenzhen Transportation Bureau ordered officials to go to Talent Park to study where the wharf would be sited, with plans for a 2,000-ton passenger berth.  

The project was incorporated into the work plan of the Shenzhen municipal Party committee and government, with a planned launch date of August 26, 2020, the 40th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. But after the fraudulent EIA became public, the entire project was halted. NewsChina contacted Shenzhen Transportation Bureau to ask about its future, but did not receive a reply.  

Some have questioned why Shenzhen should not develop coastal boat trips like other seaside destinations in China.  

Environmentalists counter that Shenzhen, due to its geographical location, cannot refer to the experience of sightseeing tourism adopted by other coastal cities. “The conditions in Shenzhen Bay are not comparable to those in other coastal cities such as Shanghai. For example, the Huangpu River in Shanghai is surrounded by buildings and existing waterways and can be developed without dredging,” Ma Haipeng added. 

Ma said that despite the limitations of Shenzhen Bay due to geography and ecology, authorities are still determined to continue with the dredging project. 

Shenzhen Bay’s significance is its ecological value. Cai Zhiyang said that where there are sightseeing cruises in places such as Shanghai or Hong Kong, the waters are already deep, and thus, despite tidal effects, low tides do not reveal extensive intertidal wetlands. Most importantly, these cruise areas do not possess rich biodiversity or migratory bird resources. 

Ecological protection and tourism are not necessarily incompatible. “The current problem is a lack of in-depth discussion among stakeholders, especially when they deprive participation of environmental protection experts with background in fields like mangroves and birds, including representatives from protected areas in Shenzhen Bay and the mangrove ecological parks,” Cai said.  

Song said that the best way to develop the project is to organize a group of experts to evaluate the overall resources of the region before considering whether the route needs to be changed. 

According to Lei Xiaohan, an engineer with the Shenzhen Municipal Planning and Transportation Department, the city must choose between tourism development and bird protection.  

Cai’s study found that some 15 percent of intertidal wetlands have been lost globally over the past 30 years due to man-made interventions, particularly for economic activities. From 1990 through 2015, about 40 percent of the wetlands were reclaimed by Shenzhen. The only remaining intertidal wetlands are located on the east side of Shenzhen Bay. 

“Shenzhen’s intertidal wetlands have made a lot of concessions for the economic development of Shenzhen during the past few decades. Do we really need to exhaust all the natural resources for a development plan?” Cai said.