Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing, spoke with pride at the official opening of the HK$5.5 billion state of the art Sludge Treatment Facilities (STF) last week. The facilities are to be renamed in less malodorous terms as the T Park with the T standing for transformation. “It signifies Hong Kong’s dedication to ‘transforming’ waste into energy, which is a key part in the waste management strategy for Hong Kong,” Wong said at the opening ceremony at which Chief Executive CY Leung officiated.
But one aspect of this world class project Wong did not elaborate on is that Veolia, the main contractor, that built the STF, has started legal proceedings against the Hong Kong government to recover HK$2 billion in cost overruns associated with the project. Mediation proceedings are expected to start soon.
The STF which is located at Tsang Tsui near Tuen Mun, was built by a joint venture in which Veolia had 60% and Leighton 40% under the auspices of a 15-year design build and operate contract. It has been quietly operating since April 2015, and is currently incinerating 1,200 tonnes of sludge per day that would otherwise be sent to landfills.
The sludge is delivered by trucks from Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Works and ten other wastewater treatment facilities. This is a considerable improvement over the situation 25-30 years ago when most of Hong Kong’s raw sewage went straight into the sea. The STF has a maximum capacity of 2,000 tonnes making it the largest facility of its kind in the world.
Hong Kong’s efforts in this area are gaining international recognition. In April this year, the STF together with Stage 2A of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, won a Distinction award in the category of Wastewater Project of the Year at the 2016 Global Water Awards. In addition, the architectural design of the STF was acknowledged by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers and the Institution of Structural Engineers with the presentation of the Grand Award in this year’s Structural Excellence Award.
The EPD is naturally pleased to have one of the key elements of its waste infrastructure in place. However, the joint venture that built the STF is believed to be less than happy at the way events have turned out.
The project was more than a year late. According to people familiar with the STF, this was in large part due to delays by the EPD and other government departments in providing the permits and consents that were necessary to proceed with the project. As a result, the contractor incurred higher charges and significant costs in implementing work-around measures.
One difficulty the contractor faced was that it had anticipated building a barging point at the site since both the nearby Pillar Point power plant and Went landfill have permanent barging points. But its application to the Lands Department was not successful. This meant that instead of delivering large sections of the incinerator to the site on barges, the incinerator had to be taken apart and delivered to the site in smaller pieces by trucks.
This created additional welding work which could have been manageable but the contractor then suffered a further setback at the hands of the Immigration Department which refused to grant visas for foreign specialist welders. They were necessary as boilers operate under high pressure and therefore require very specific welding qualifications that are not available in Hong Kong. Even though this was pointed out to the Immigration Department, the visas were refused. The contractor therefore had to train local welders to overcome this issue. Even then very few passed the required test leading to significant delays in the installation of the boiler.
There were also problems with the Fire Services Department (FSD) in getting a Dangerous Goods License and Fire Services Certificate. The FSD was not familiar with the STF’s incinerator since there are no others like it in Hong Kong. Veolia therefore had to train FSD officers to enable them to better understand the plant and what the fire risks are. The contractor had to organise a trip to Europe to visit incineration plants with FSD officers and again a year later as the FSD officers had changed. This also generated significant delays.
One of the key features of the STF touted by the EPD is that it is a waste to energy plant. Indeed, waste to energy has become the central mantra of the EPD’s waste management strategy. However, the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project that was completed in 2008 notes, “As the surplus power is anticipated to be minimal and it would be unlikely for CLP to purchase the surplus power, the surplus power would not be sold. Therefore, no power transmission line will be constructed outside the STF site.”
While it was always envisaged that the plant would generate its own electricity, the idea of exporting it appears to have been an afterthought and to have first surfaced in the tender documents. But it is clear that there is no economic incentive for this move given the small amount involved – a maximum of 2MW per day when the plant is operating at maximum capacity possibly in ten years’ time. It is a political initiative to try and broaden the appeal of the EPD’s environmental strategy.
The EPD appears to have left it to the contractor to discuss this issue with a reluctant CLP. This is why the need for an export transmission line only became evident relatively late in the day. As a result, people say it took a long time for CLP to produce the final requirements as to where the connections should be located resulting in long delays before the design of the electrical plant could be finalised. A spokesman for CLP confirmed the utility company has been accepting electricity from the STF since April 2015 and also provides a back-up electricity supply.
The EPD’s response to Veolia’s claim appears to have been to do literally nothing and to pretend it didn’t exist. Faced with this inaction the contractor initiated mediation proceedings as stipulated in its contract.
But Veolia is not alone in encountering delayed payments by the Hong Kong government which has a number of standard ploys for dealing with claims. One approach is to attempt to bully contractors by pointing out that aggressive pursuit of a claim might hinder consideration for future government contracts. Another tactic is to delay payment for as long as possible in the hope this will encourage the contractor to settle for a lower amount.
The problem has become so pervasive that 14 international chambers of commerce in Hong Kong sent a letter to Jasper Tsang, the president of the Legislative Council, last February outlining their concerns. The letter pointed out that the delays in payment to contractors was jeopardising the health of consultants and contractors and the whole construction supply chain and could lead to financial problems, the need for layoffs and job losses.
The letter was sent to Tsang in the belief that it was the filibustering and political posturing in Legco that was delaying the approval of funds to be paid to contractors.This is certainly one reason. Another is the chronic culture of risk aversion and self-preservation that pervades the civil service which discourages people from taking big decisions.
The management of the STF project and the handling of its claim is a prime example. The default position of ministers is to avoid taking decisions, and thus responsibility, which could result in criticism, public humiliation and possibly harm their pensions. This aversion to risk is immediately picked up by their civil servants who know they cannot rely on support from their seniors. So for the same reasons they too will avoid involvement with ‘risky’ projects and taking responsibility for decisions.
Government departments can just about bring themselves to ask Legco for additional funds so long as they can justify it in terms of increasing costs of materials and labour. But this approach is unlikely to be successful with Veolia’s claim since it involves additional funding amounting to some 40% of the original price of the project. That will take some explaining.The EPD appears to have taken the view that if the mediation process is able to achieve a settlement, this will make it easier to approach Legco for funds.
The EPD is still smarting from the mauling it received at the hands of the Public Accounts Committee in December 2015 when it was accused of deliberately misleading Legco over the remaining life of Hong Kong’s landfills. It denied the accusation but the experience has increased the EPD’s reluctance to return to Legco since it is aware its reputation has been undermined and that it will be subjected to close scrutiny.
None of this bodes well for an early resolution of the STF claim or indeed other infrastructure related claims. Nor will it enhance Hong Kong’s reputation as place in which to invest and do business. The Hong Kong government has already acquired a reputation for being a slow payer. This will encourage contractors to further pad their tenders as they factor in government risk. This will ultimately increase the cost of Hong Kong’s infrastructure to the taxpayer.
It is unlikely this situation will improve in the near future since there is nothing to suggest that the political situation in Hong Kong will improve sufficiently to allow Legco to get on with its work in a less partisan manner. Further the civil service is unlikely to break out of the current culture which is paralysing government and exerting a dead hand over Hong Kong.