Oral Answer by Ministry of National Development on Kranji AFIP Incident
Feb 26, 2021
Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: To ask the Minister for National Development whether environmental baseline studies or environmental impact assessments are currently done for all industrial developments.
Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) whether the Ministry is investigating how a forested area in Kranji was cleared before a biodiversity baseline study was completed; and (b) whether it will be strengthening the environmental impact assessment framework further to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) whether environmental baseline studies (EBS) and environmental impact assessments (EIA) are always completed before tenders are issued for development projects at or near sensitive nature areas; (b) at which stage of development projects are the EBS and EIA conducted.
Ms He Ting Ru: To ask the Minister for Sustainability and the Environment (a) how many previous incidents have there been where land has been cleared before the biodiversity or environmental baseline study has been completed; and (b) what impact will the premature clearing of land have on the carrying out of relevant studies.
Ms He Ting Ru: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the clearing of the land in the Sungei Kadut Eco-District constitutes a breach of Section 14(1) of the Parks and Trees Act.
Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) whether the same guidelines apply on approval for clearance of trees or forested areas in public versus private projects; and (b) what is the frequency of checks conducted by NParks during site clearance of construction projects to ensure no preserved or heritage trees are felled.
Dr Tan Wu Meng: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) what is the assessed biodiversity impact arising from the mistaken clearing of a forested area in Kranji; (b) whether there were checks and failsafes to prevent this error and, if so, what went wrong; (c) whether the contractor responsible is participating in or tendering for any other projects where forested areas may be under its purview; and (d) how many mistaken clearings have occurred in the past decade.
Mr Leong Mun Wai: To ask the Minister for National Development with regard to the “erroneous” clearing of forested land in Kranji by JTC’s contractor (a) whether formal legal action will be taken against JTC and the contractor; (b) what punishments can be meted out to those who accidentally or deliberately damage our natural ecosystems, including terrestrial and marine; and (c) what mitigation or restoration actions will they be required to take.
Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for National Development with regard to the investigations into the unauthorised clearance of swathes of the Kranji woodland by a JTC contractor (a) whether there is an approval process involving NParks for development projects near sensitive nature areas before work commences; (b) how many similar unauthorised clearances have occurred in the last 12 months; and (c) what more can be done to ensure that such occurrences do not happen again.
Dr Lim Wee Kiak: To ask the Minister for National Development in respect of the unauthorised clearance of the greenery which is part of the Sungei Kadut Eco-District (a) why was work carried out without proper approval from various authorities; (b) why was this unauthorised clearance not made public by JTC Corporation until the matter was highlighted in the social media; and (c) what steps have been taken to tighten gaps in the approval process to prevent a recurrence.
Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) whether he can provide an update on NParks’ investigation into the clearing of the 70-hectare green patch in Kranji Woodlands; (b) what are the regulations and guidelines to hold parties accountable for such incidents; and (c) what steps will be taken to prevent this from happening again.
Mr Gan Thiam Poh: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) what steps and measures have been taken to reinstate the forest that has been wrongly cleared by the contractor in the Sungei Kadut Eco-Distict; (b) whether such steps and measures will be able to reinstate the biodiversity of the original forest.
Mr Shawn Huang Wei Zhong: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the Kranji woodland that has been erroneously cleared can become a site for a new "Microforest Project" to create a renewed urban forest that can trial and validate rapid reforesting solutions to regenerate a richer biodiversity.
Mr Vikram Nair: To ask the Minister for National Development whether he can provide an update on NParks' investigation into the unauthorised clearance of Kranji woodland and for an explanation as to why the error was only recently discovered even though clearance seems to have started as early as March 2020.
Mr Yip Hon Weng: To ask the Minister for National Development (a) what are the circumstances that led to the error in the clearing of the land at Kranji Road/Kranji Close by the JTC contractor without proper prior approval; (b) what is the standard operating procedure (SOP) for such works before they are carried out by a contractor; and (c) what action is being taken against individuals who do not follow the SOP.
Mr Shawn Huang Wei Zhong: To ask the Minister for National Development whether Singapore’s current laws against ecocide are adequate.
Miss Rachel Ong: To ask the Minister for National Development whether the submission of an environmental monitoring and management plan (EMMP) or other documents relating to environmental and biodiversity impact is a requirement for the authorisation of clearance of forested areas.
Mr Speaker Sir, in order to address the House comprehensively on the issue of the site clearance at the Kranji Site, my response today will also cover issues raised by MPs who had filed related PQs for subsequent sittings. To be specific, this includes PQs filed by MPs Mr Dennis Tan, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Gerald Giam, Ms He Ting Ru, Ms Cheryl Chan, Dr Tan Wu Meng, Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Ms Nadia Samdin, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Mr Leong Mun Wai, Mr Alex Yam, Mr Shawn Huang, Mr Vikram Nair, Mr Yip Hon Weng and Ms Rachel Ong. I seek Speaker’s understanding of this approach.
As the details of the site clearance at the Kranji Site have been shared publicly by JTC at a press conference on 22 February, I will focus my response today on (a) environmental considerations in the planning process, (b) ongoing investigations into the incident at the Kranji site, and (c) steps that we plan to take to strengthen our processes, including the EIA framework.
Let me start with the planning process. Under URA’s Planning Act, development proposals require planning permission from the URA before they are allowed to proceed. As part of this process, every development proposal goes through a thorough screening process, which reviews not only its potential environmental impact, but also other aspects such as its impact on traffic, public health, and heritage.
Now, developments projects [A] near sensitive areas such as Nature Reserves, Nature Areas, and other areas with significant biodiversity, or [B] which are in marine, and coastal areas, or [C] which have potential trans-boundary impact, are subject to greater scrutiny.
The developers of such projects will be required to undergo an in-depth consultation process with relevant Technical Agencies, namely the NParks, the National Environment Agency, the Maritime Port Authority and the Singapore Food Agency.
Depending on the context of the site, the scope of the project works, and its potential impact on the environment, more detailed studies may be required. This can be an Environmental Baseline Study or EBS, or in some cases, a more detailed Environmental Impact Study or EIS, which sets out the environmental baseline, expected impact and mitigation measures.
The studies enable agencies to better assess the possible environmental impact of the development plans and the adequacy of the proposed mitigation measures, to guide the planning and potential development of the site. For instance, NEA assesses the potential for noise, water or air pollution. MPA assesses impacts on navigation, and SFA on sea-based farms. NParks assesses impacts on terrestrial and marine biodiversity, covering both flora and fauna.
We adopt this calibrated approach across all development projects, whether they are for industrial or other uses.
While developers can call tenders for works while the environmental studies are ongoing, activities on site can only proceed when the developer has received the necessary approvals from relevant agencies. This applies for both private and public projects.
Now let me give an example of site clearance which involves the felling of trees.
Under the Parks & Trees Act, the felling of any tree more than 1m girth either on vacant land or in Tree Conservation areas can only proceed with the Commissioner’s approval.
NParks will require a tree survey, in order to assess the potential impact of the tree felling plan. If NParks assesses that conducting a further environmental baseline, or other forms of study is not required, it may allow for some types of works to begin.
However, NParks may require mitigation measures, such as the installation of hoarding or an Environmental Monitoring and Management Programme or EMMP to be put in place. For past incidents of tree felling without prior approval, NParks had conducted investigations and penalties ensued. The environmental impact of such incidents varies depending on the site context and the extent of works undertaken.
Planning permission for the project to go ahead is only granted after a project has met the requirements imposed by the respective regulatory agencies. These include completing necessary detailed technical studies, such as environmental and traffic impact assessments, as well as putting in place mitigating measures.
Clearance of Kranji Site
Now let me move on to the clearance of this Kranji site. Many members have asked for updates on the investigations and the possible penalties on the site clearance at the Kranji site.
As I have said on 22 February at the Press Conference, NParks is currently investigating whether there have been breaches of the Wildlife Act and/or the Parks and Trees Act.
We therefore cannot go into more detail at this point, and we ask that members not speculate further. After investigations are complete, NParks will refer the case to the Public Prosecutor for directions, before sharing the findings with the public.
There are penalties for breaches of the Parks and Trees Act and the Wildlife Act. For instance, infringement of the Wildlife Act that came into force in June last year may attract a fine not exceeding $50,000 or imprisonment up to 6 months, or both.
Members have also asked if the site clearance at the Kranji Road or Kranji Close Site had affected the fauna baseline study. 13ha of vegetated areas, which includes the safeguarded green corridor and vegetated buffers along Sungei Pang Sua, remain. All clearance works on site are currently suspended, while the study is underway. The results of the study will be made public when ready.
Thereafter, JTC will engage relevant stakeholders on the findings, including the measures to enhance greenery and connectivity of the site, and its surrounding environs. The study findings will be used to design measures such as enhanced habitats, buffers and connectivity for wildlife.
Steps to Strengthen Processes
I move on to the third part of the presentation which is on steps to strengthen processes. Members have asked how we will prevent such incidents from happening again.
As Minister Chan had announced on Monday, a review will be undertaken of this incident, to identify gaps and learning points for project management, supervision and execution, as well as inter-agency coordination.
Agencies involved in site clearance projects are conducting checks to ensure that their project supervision and implementation processes are in order.
Enhancing our EIA Framework
In parallel, MND will continue our efforts to strengthen the Environmental Impact Assessment framework or EIA framework, in close consultation with the nature community and partner agencies.
We are currently working to implement the following enhancements which we had announced publicly last October. Namely, [A] increase the rigour of our environmental studies through a set of Biodiversity Impact Assessment Guidelines, [B] strengthen our enforcement regime, through the amended Wildlife Act, [C] build up local expertise on ecological matters, and [D] make all environmental study reports publicly available, unless there are security considerations.
In our discussions with the nature community last year, we had identified several other ways to further strengthen the EIA process, beyond what we had just rolled out in October.
We will develop a more comprehensive picture of the island-wide ecosystem and connectivity, so that we can better consider how the specific sites connect to our nature cores, buffers and corridors.
We will do this in a science-based manner, on an island-wide scale, and we will conduct baseline studies for specific sites to understand their ecological profile and role in ecological connectivity. Members of the nature community will be invited to join us in this upstream work.
The findings from these studies will add to the data and connectivity models that NParks has built up over the years, and help guide Government in carrying out longer term planning.
In addition, we have been reviewing whether it would be better to centralise the management of EIA consultants, instead of having individual developers or agencies manage their own. We are still studying this.
Separately, we will explore how we can better use of technology to strengthen project management.
Sir, members may recall that we had negotiated for the return of the KTM railway line to Singapore in 2011, to meet, among other things, our land use needs. The land that we got back included the 24km railway line from North all the south to Tanjong Pagar railway station, as well as adjacent parcels of land at various points along the track, and these parcels of land were used by the railway for storage, for housing and for other purposes.
We struck a careful balance between conservation and development in our land use planning for the land that was returned, as follows.
First, by conserving the entire 24km Rail Corridor from Woodlands all the way down south to Tanjong Pagar for recreation, community activities and for nature.
Second, by conserving the railway station building in Tanjong Pagar and the old BTRS or Bukit Timah railway station as part of our heritage and history.
And by zoning the adjacent land parcels along the railway tracks, including the Kranji site, for development, to meet our people’s needs for homes, jobs and amenities, and so on.
So we struck a balance in three ways, and if members may recall in the last PQ over Ulu Pandan forest as I sought to provide the broad outline on how we steward our land to meet various needs, including that for nature, for housing, for jobs, and so on and so forth.
We include a strategy of big moves, for example Greater Southern Waterfront, Paya Lebar relocation, and of course this KTM line that we brought back, including the land parcels adjacent along the way, was one of those moves as well.
For the Kranji site, as Minister Chan Chun Sing had explained earlier, it comprised mostly scrubland scattered with trees when it was returned to Singapore in 2011. Until the detailed plans were finalised and works began, the site was left vacant, with vegetation and trees allowed to grow to provide green cover until the time of development.
Non-native Albizia trees sprouted in recent years, and biologists will know that Albizia trees grow at a very quick rate, they self-sow, and they grow at as fast as say four to five metres a year, and can mature in as fast as five years, or less, and in Singapore’s hot and humid climate, progressively dominated the site within a few years.
So sites that have been cleared and with intention for some form of development, even as they are left fallow and bare, we allowed vegetation, green cover, so we enjoy that, for the few years.
As I have explained in this House recently, we adopt a science-based approach to identify which areas of significant biodiversity to conserve. For instance, the Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat, just further north of the Kranji site, was once a fishing village. It had initially been planned for industrial use, for factory.
Yet, after careful study through biodiversity surveys and ecological modelling, we decided to keep it as a Nature Park given its high ecological value both domestically as well as internationally, as part of a Flyway. Agencies therefore, had to forego their development plans for the area.
For sites to be developed, we seek to preserve and integrate natural elements within the development where possible, to facilitate ecological connectivity.
In JTC’s masterplan for Sungei Kadut Eco-District or SKED, 25 ha out of 500 ha was set aside for the first phase of the Agri-Food Innovation Park or AFIP. This is the Kranji site in question. For the Kranji site, while a portion of the KTM railway line was re-routed along Woodlands Road in 2015 to allow the entire site to be comprehensively developed, JTC worked with NParks to relook these plans.
In 2019, they decided to retain the original alignment as a green corridor within the AFIP, even though this meant for JTC that land parcellation for industry would be more challenging. This effort to retain the original railway line with additional green buffers on each side, amounting to 6ha, along with a linear park along Sungei Pang Sua, is an example of our ongoing efforts to balance nature conservation with land planning and development.
We are very encouraged by the growing nature consciousness among Singaporeans, and this is part of City in Nature, not just quantitative or qualitative or ecological, but also the DNA, mainstreamed in Singaporeans.
And we will be engaging Singaporeans more deeply on this issue as part of our national conversations on long-term land use planning later this year. We will continue to partner the community as stewards of our City in Nature, and we look forward to working together to achieve this vision.