LCQ19: Levying sewage charges
According to the Sewage Services Ordinance (Cap. 463), a water consumer whose premises are connected to a public sewer should pay a sewage charge (SC) at a prescribed rate based on the volume of water supplied to the premises. Some villagers of Shan Ha Wai Village (i.e. Tsang Tai Uk), Sha Tin have relayed that the premises of the households in the village have not been connected to a public sewer, and over the years the households did not receive any demand notes for SCs. However, recently SCs for the previous six years have been levied on such households by the Drainage Services Department (DSD) under the Limitation Ordinance (Cap. 347). The hefty charges have posed a heavy financial burden on the villagers, and some of them even cannot afford such charges. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) as the households of that village have indicated that their premises are not connected to a public sewer, of the DSD's justifications for levying SCs on them;
(2) whether it has reviewed if the aforesaid incident has involved DSD's errors or omissions in levying SCs; if it has reviewed and the outcome is in the affirmative, of the details, and how it prevents the recurrence of such incident; if the review outcome is in the negative, the reasons for that;
(3) of the number of cases involving the DSD's errors or omissions in the past five years in respect of levying SCs (with a breakdown by the causes (including but not limited to human errors and maladministration)), and the amounts involved;
(4) of the number of complaints relating to the DSD's errors or omissions in levying SCs received by the Government in the past five years, and the following information on each of such cases: the amount levied, the cause of the mistake, and whether the complaint was substantiated; and
(5) of the mechanism for handling and investigating errors or omissions in levying SCs; in respect of those cases which have been found to have involved maladministration, whether the DSD will refund SCs to those villagers with financial difficulties, or waive/exercise discretion in handling the SCs imposed on such villagers, and take disciplinary actions against the officers concerned?
Based upon the polluter-pays principle, the Government levies sewage charge on users of public sewage services in order to recover the operating and maintenance costs of sewage collection and treatment facilities. According to the Sewage Services Ordinance, any water user account with the premises connected, whether directly or indirectly, to a communal drain or a communal sewer for removing wastewater therefrom shall pay a sewage charge to the Government.
There are cases of old sewer connections that the Drainage Services Department (DSD) may not have complete records, and hence may not have been timely levied sewage charge on. In this regard, the DSD has been monitoring the situation of levying sewage charge from time to time, through searching past records and conducting site inspections, with a view to ascertaining whether the concerned premises are directly or indirectly connected to communal drains/sewers for discharging wastewater, and hence whether sewage charge should be levied accordingly. The DSD will continue with the above work to monitor the situation of levying sewage charge, and timely levy backdated sewage charge.
To ensure that consumers are accurately identified for levying sewage charge, the DSD has since December 2015 required a declaration, during the registration of water supply account with the Water Supplies Department (WSD), of whether there is any self-installed septic tank/sewage treatment facility. If it is verified that a septic tank/sewage treatment facility has been installed and no wastewater is discharged to communal drains/sewers, sewage charge will not be levied on the consumer.
I provide a reply to the Hon Lau's questions as follows:
(1) With regard to the case of Shan Ha Wai (Tsang Tai Uk), the DSD had not had any record of the village households discharging wastewater to the public drainage system at the periphery of the village. During the inspections of sewer connections at Shan Ha Wai in 2021, the DSD noticed that there were houses of Shan Ha Wai discharging wastewater, via some pipes/ditches inside Shan Ha Wai and other drainage channels, to the public drainage system and dry weather flow interceptors at the periphery of Shan Ha Wai, and ultimately to the Sha Tin Sewage Treatment Works for treatment. As a result, upon verifying such information as the registration dates of the concerned water supply accounts and the commissioning year of the relevant public sewerage system, the DSD considered that the discharge of wastewater from the concerned premises had met the conditions of levying sewage charge, and thus issued letters in April 2022 to about 60 households, informing them of levying backdated sewage charge, with payment periods ranging from several months to six years.
Subsequently, upon being invited by the chairman of the Sha Tin Rural Committee, the DSD met with the village representatives of Shan Ha Wai in June 2022 and explained to them the reasons and details of levying sewage charge, based on the volume of water supplied to the relevant premises by the Water Authority. The total value of the concerned sewage charges, calculated at the prescribed rate, is about $120,000, with each ranging from $70 to $8,000. The DSD is currently discussing with the relevant households on their cases, and they can raise objections, with substantiations, which will be duly considered by the DSD. They do not need to pay the backdated sewage charges until the DSD has made the final decision. Besides, if the relevant households do not agree with the final decision on the arrangement or amount of backdated sewage charge levied, they may appeal in accordance with the Sewage Services Ordinance to the Administrative Appeals Board appointed by the Chief Executive.
(2) The DSD is conducting a review of the above cases, including the arrangement of further site inspections and discussions with relevant consumers on their specific circumstances. As aforesaid, since records of sewer connections abound and are kept being updated, the DSD needs appropriate time to verify relevant information, through searching past records and conducting site inspections, with a view to ascertaining whether the concerned premises are directly or indirectly connected to communal drains/sewers for discharging wastewater, and hence whether sewage charges should be levied accordingly.
(3) In the past five years, the DSD had issued notices of demand to about 11 600 consumers for backdated sewage charges, thereby recovering about a total of $6.9 million of sewage charges. As aforementioned, the reason of demanding backdated sewage charges from all the concerned consumers was that the DSD, upon checking past records or conducting site inspections, ascertained that the concerned premises had been directly or indirectly connected to communal drains/sewers for discharging wastewater.
(4) There are currently about 3.2 million water supply accounts in Hong Kong. When water users open water accounts with the WSD, the DSD will utilise a computer system to automatically identify whether the premises are connected to the public sewerage system, and will levy sewage charge on relevant consumers accordingly. However, due to discrepancies arising from the address format or other data entered by some consumers during account registration, there have been cases where the computer system mistakenly identified some premises as being connected to communal drains/sewers, thereby levying sewage charge on the concerned consumers. In the past five years, there had been about 1,000 justified cases of consumers not agreeing to sewage charge being levied on them and applying for refund. The reasons provided were mainly the presence of septic tanks/other sewage treatment facilities in the premises and no connection being made to communal drains/sewers. The DSD, upon examining the substantiations provided and verifying the concerned addresses and other relevant information, had refunded a total of about $3 million to relevant consumers. The DSD has no record of complaint in this regard.
(5) The public may call the DSD's Customer Services Section at 2834 9432, fax to 3104 6433, email to email@example.com, or mail to G/F, Western Magistracy 2A Pokfulam Road, H.K., providing the contact number of the registered consumer of water account and the account number, for enquiry on cases that sewage charge is levied on premises that do not discharged wastewater to communal drains/sewers. The DSD will contact the relevant consumers for site verification and, if it is ascertained that the concerned premises have not been connected to communal drains/sewers, the DSD will arrange for refund. A remark has also been included at the back page of water bills reminding consumers that if sewage charge is levied on premises that are not discharging wastewater to communal drains/sewers, the relevant consumers should contact the DSD for following up.
Besides, the DSD will monitor the situation of levying sewage charge from time to time and, upon identifying any consumer whose premises are directly or indirectly connected to communal drains/sewers but is not levied sewage charge, will issue a notice of intention to levy sewage charge accordingly. If the concerned consumer does not agree with the relevant arrangement of levying sewage charge, he/she can provide substantiations to the DSD within the notice period. The DSD will examine the substantiations provided and duly follow up on the case. If the consumer is not able to pay the backdated sewage charge in one go due to financial difficulty, the DSD can provide assistance to him/her to arrange for payment by instalments.
As to the disciplinary aspect, there is a well-established system in the civil service, and those civil servants who have committed misconduct or offence will be subject to appropriate disciplinary actions.
Ends/Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Issued at HKT 12:00
Issued at HKT 12:00