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Hong Kong airport's third runway gets government nod
But environmental concerns still dog the hub's US$11 billion expansion
The Hong Kong government has conditionally approved the proposal to build a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA).
The announcement came on Tuesday despite concerns of pollution and encroachment on the habitat of China's endangered white dolphins.
The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) says a quantitative survey held last summer, as part of a three-month public consultation period on the expansion of the airport, showed that 73 percent of the respondents preferred the three-runway option.
The alternative was maintaining the two-runway system, yet adding more facilities such as another passenger concourse.
"Our airport's future development into a three-runway system is crucial if we are to maintain Hong Kong's status as a leading international and regional aviation center," said Dr. Marvin Cheung Kin-tung, chairman of the AAHK.
More on CNNGo: Jason Beerman: Do we really need a third runway?
The AAHK predicts it will take about three years before construction can begin as they have yet to complete a full environmental impact assessment as well as approve design details for the facilities and confirm funding channels.
The runway is expected to cost US$11.1 billion and scheduled to be running at full capacity by 2020.
HKIA currently operates at a runway capacity of more than one flight a minute, and expects air traffic demand to reach about 97 million passengers, 8.9 million tons of cargo and 602,000 flight movements per year by 2030.
What about the dolphins?
As the new runway will be built on around 6.5 square kilometers of reclaimed land, environmentalists are highly concerned over the safety of Chinese white dolphins, which are protected under Hong Kong law.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has studied the negative impact that land reclamation will bring to not only the dolphins, but to the ecosystem in general as well as Hong Kong's fishing industry.
"AAHK has downplayed the impacts of the third runway reclamation to fisheries and the fishing community -- without conducting fishery modeling to look into the future, the real cost of reclamation cannot be estimated," said Samantha Lee, Senior Conservation Officer, Marine at WWF-Hong Kong.
A study by the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre found that the impact of land reclamation on the fishing industry could represent a loss of up to HK$48 million.
The AAHK responded to green groups that they are "committed to full compliance" and will make an effort to avoid and minimize the environmental impact of building a third runway.