Sunday, 22 February 2015

That messy divorce continued...

The £65 million deal between Scottish Borders Council and New Earth Solutions (NES) for the development of a ground breaking waste management centre at Galashiels was facing serious problems at least ten months ago, according to information now in the possession of our chief reporter Doug Collie.

A few days ago we reported on Thursday's announcement by the council that it had abandoned the project, including a 24-year contract with NES for the disposal of garbage generated throughout the Borders. According to both parties the ill-fated scheme - said to have involved expenditure of at least £2.5 million to date - had run into technological and funding issues which could not be resolved.

There had been no previous public pronouncements indicating the Easter Langlee project was at least potentially in trouble, and in fact the council was making encouraging noises about its successful delivery as recently as September last year, and again during October.

In a Freedom of Information response, issued by SBC on September 16, it was claimed planning permission had been secured for an energy recovery facility, and an application for a modification to the operating permit was being progressed with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). The response went on: "In early 2015 there will be a clear delivery path in place."

Then, following a visit by a 16-strong council delegation to the NES treatment centre at Avonmouth, Bristol, there was an even more upbeat message from council leader David Parker.

Councillor Parker told the Border Telegraph: "The Avonmouth visit was valuable and illuminating. I am satisfied after our visit that we are on the right track and confident the WTF (waste treatment facility) will be up and running before the 2019 contract deadline, hopefully by mid-2017."

But both of those positively glowing statements now appear to have a distinctly hollow ring given the contents of a minute from a private council meeting held on April 29 2014 which has been drawn to the attention of Collie and his colleagues.

Councillors were informed at that meeting that New Earth Solutions had requested a contract moratorium to allow them to put in place a new funding and energy-from-waste development strategy for the Borders project. NES had also experienced funding and technology issues with their Avonmouth plant, the meeting heard.

According to the minute councillors agreed to a contractual moratorium up to October 2014 while a February 2014 contract termination date was to be extended until March 31 2015 so that a "no compensation termination" could be used by SBC if required.

So why were these problems and issues kept under wraps and hidden from the public for almost a year while contradictory messages were emanating from the local authority? Was the project in trouble well before April 2014?

The council statement did not include details of the technical and funding problems which caused the flawed  project to fail. But an indication of those issues which were to scupper a contract carrying potential expenditure of £80 million has now been given to a trade magazine by Matthew Webb, commercial manager at NES.

He claimed new rules mandating the separate collection of food waste in Scotland meant the project would lose food waste feedstock in the future.

The project was also partly affected by Scotland's 'strong support for recycling' and 'less focus on residual waste'. Furthermore, waste volumes have been declining since the contract was signed which meant NES had to secure more waste contracts to help with the project's funding. Changes to guidelines on the thermal treatment of waste also caused delays.

And, according to Mr Webb, the technology gas-to-engine gasification was supposed to be the first of its kind in Scotland and had not yet been proven on a commercial scale. This had also made funding the plant more difficult. Neither the council nor NES were able to address implementation issues faced by the project

Mr Webb's revelations surely beg the question: "Why were none of these problems and issues identified and resolved by officers and expensive specialist consultants before SBC signed multi-million pound contract documents?"

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