SINGAPORE - Development works on a Kranji woodland plot that was cleared by mistake remain stalled, as the authorities get to the bottom of what went wrong.
The incident - where 4.5 ha of greenery was cleared before a biodiversity study was completed - has also prompted a review of how agencies work, both internally and with each other, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Monday (Feb 22).
"The public service will learn from this and improve," he said, adding that he had instructed all agencies involved in land clearance projects to immediately check and make sure that their processes were in order, "so as to avoid any repeat of the mistakes made".
Originally scrubland with scattered non-native trees, the site of the former KTM railway line where the clearing took place did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment, although other studies were needed.
Mr Chan spoke during a virtual press conference also attended by National Development Minister Desmond Lee as well as JTC chief executive Tan Boon Khai and Dr Leong Chee Chiew, commissioner of parks and recreation at the National Parks Board (NParks).
Calling the situation "regrettable and deeply concerning", Mr Lee stressed that a thorough investigation would be done, with the findings made public.
Mr Joseph Leong, permanent secretary for defence development and second permanent secretary for communications and information, will lead the review of processes, which will take about three months.
Said Mr Chan: "We take a very serious view of this incident. It is clear to us that there were gaps in the way that the project was managed and supervised. And that we must do better."
Chain of events
On Feb 14, aerial footage circulating on social media showed that swathes of the vegetation flanking the Rail Corridor in Sungei Kadut had been cleared.
JTC said two days later on Feb 16 that the area had been cleared erroneously by its contractor before a biodiversity survey was completed, and that the green patches had been cleared at the end of December.
However, satellite footage showed that the land clearance in the area started earlier, since March 2020.
On Monday, site developer JTC clarified that land clearance for the 25ha Agri-Food Innovation Park - which will be part of the larger Sungei Kadut Eco-District - had started in March 2020. Most of this clearance had been approved.
But the work was supposed to be done in phases. The land cleared in December had been outside of plots approved for clearance, JTC said.
So far, about 11ha of land in the 25ha plot has been cleared. Of this, 4.5ha was cleared mistakenly.
The Rail Corridor, as well as an additional green buffer of between 15m and 20m on either side of it, will be retained, totalling 6ha.
JTC said it accepted supervisory responsibilities and that it will look into whether its own officers and the private contractors involved had followed due process, and how JTC can better supervise the various agencies and qualified personnel as they implement the project.
All parties have agreed to provide full cooperation, JTC said.
Meanwhile, NParks, which is the custodian of native biodiversity here, will also be conducting an investigation to determine if there were breaches to the Parks and Trees Act and Wildlife Act.
NParks' Dr Leong said the Board's role is to assess requests for tree felling, provide approvals where appropriate, and also look into potential impacts on wildlife.
"So, our investigation will be thorough in looking at whether there were breaches to the Parks and Trees Act, and the Wildlife Act," Dr Leong said.
"What JTC has uncovered in its chronological order will be referenced when we carry out our investigation. So, at this point in time, I need to clarify that as far as NParks goes, we do not make any assumptions on who did what and when and so on and so forth. Because our investigation needs to be thorough," he added.
Under the Parks and Trees Act, those found guilty of felling a tree larger than 1m in girth without the approval of the commissioner could face a fine of up to $50,000.
Those who breach the Wildlife Act can also face a penalty of up to $50,000, with the possibility of a six-month imprisonment, Dr Leong said.
"This is serious, and I will not make any assumptions at this point in time," he said.
Mr Tan, the JTC chief executive, said that as the project and site developer, JTC acknowledged that it has overall responsibility of the site.
He added: "We do not run away from this responsibility. We will not and nor do we intend to."
The need for a biodiversity study
The affected site was occupied by the former railway line operated by the Malaysian company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM), but was returned to Singapore on July 1, 2011.
With the rail line no longer in use, and the site left unmanaged, pending redevelopment works, vegetation had sprouted up over the past few years.
JTC said Albizia trees - a non-native tree species that is fast-growing - now dominate the site.
As the site was also not located close to any sensitive nature areas, an environmental impact assessment was not deemed necessary, JTC added.
Last March, land clearance work started, following NParks' approval of tree felling in some areas.
However, in August, the consultants engaged to carry out planning and design works for the area resubmitted a new building plan that showed a new proposed drain.
This drain would discharge into the Pang Sua River - and could eventually end up in the Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat, which is slated to open as a nature park in 2022.
An earlier study had pointed to the Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat, located about 3km east of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, as being the main "seeding source" for mangrove propagules for many other mangrove areas.
At that point, the Wildlife Act had come into effect.
This Act empowers NParks' director-general of wildlife management to issue directions to developers to carry out wildlife-related measures to safeguard wildlife, public health or safety, or the health of the ecosystem.
So in response to the resubmission, NParks had required a fauna baseline study - essentially a checklist of the types of animals found in the area - and an environmental monitoring and management plan to be done.
This study, as well as the environmental monitoring and management programme, will likely be completed in April.
JTC said it will engage stakeholders on the findings of the studies, and that the results of the baseline study and consultation will be publicly shared.