A firm of waste treatment contractors working for Scottish Borders Council wanted Government agencies in Scotland to browbeat the national environmental regulator in a bid to nullify serious issues over the granting of an operating certificate.
Details of the 'outrageous' strategy, which was hatched in 2013, together with the subsequent strongly worded slap-downs from the local authority and its advisors have been disclosed in documentation released under Freedom of Information.
New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) [NES], the company specifically set up to deliver the £21 million Advanced Thermal Technology [ATT] plant at Easter Langlee, Galashiels, applied to the fiercely independent Scottish Environment Protection Agency [SEPA] in May 2013 for a variation to the so-called Pollution Prevention and Control [PPC] permit required to operate the plant.
It was originally hoped to have the PPC signed off by October 2013. But in fact there were so many unresolved issues with the technology to be installed in the Borders treatment centre that SEPA had still not issued the necessary paperwork by February 2015 when council and contractor abandoned the project with a combined financial loss of at least £4 million.
In what appears to be a shockingly frank email to the council in September 2013, NES wrote: "As SBC is aware, we disagree with SEPA in a number of areas relating to their need for certain data in order to process the PPC.
"Now we are through the 'difficult' part of the project (i.e. the planning application), as discussed at the previous meeting, we may need SBC's assistance with lobbying through Scottish Government to bring pressure to bear on SEPA. We met with Zero Waste Scotland [ZWS] at the RWM event [an annual resource efficiency and waste management exhibition held in Birmingham] and expressed frustration with SEPA's approach and we will be following up on this initial contact".
NES also told the council: "We believe that SEPA's likely requirements on data may exceed what the regulations require", going on to suggest that "if SEPA is not satisfied with the data we do provide, then we will have to argue the point with them and it is on this point that the wider assistance of SBC may be required".
At that time the Easter Langlee technical systems being 'road tested' by NES at their sister plants in Canford and Avonmouth were frequently misfiring. On occasions the machinery had to be shut down to avoid serious damage to the various parts while mention is also made of equipment breakages and the need for adjustments by skilled engineers.
Despite all of that NES managers clearly thought the Borders permit should be nodded through by SEPA.
Commenting on the proposed challenge to SEPA's authority, consultants Nevin Associates told SBC: "I'm not sure whether such a confrontational approach is well advised. An alternative is for the three parties - the regulator, the contractor and ourselves as client - to participate in a round table meeting to agree a pragmatic route forward to meeting SEPA's concerns regarding emissions and the air quality impact of the technology."
The Nevin Associates message adds: "My suspicion is that NES's reluctance [to meet SEPA's demands] is because their thermal treatment technology is not yet sufficiently developed.
"The ability of the plant to run continuously is now only due to be tested during the week commencing October 21st 2013, which is well behind schedule. NES seek to lay the blame for this on SEPA, commenting that offices have been unavailable to discuss the application.
"I suspect this is somewhat disingenuous, and that the real reason is that NES's own technology trials are progressing more slowly than anticipated".
The same consultant goes on to say that NES must 'come clean' regarding the exact nature of the technological issues that they are seeking to overcome.
He added: "I just feel at the moment that we are suffering a little from the 'mushroom syndrome', with NES being somewhat disingenuous in seeking to apportion blame for the delay to SEPA. This may be a defensive mechanism on their part, to avoid the risk that we can refer to the legal provisions of the contract to claim damages from them in the event of a significant delay".
In a thinly veiled rebuke to NES over its strident posturing against SEPA, SBC's Department of Environment & Infrastructure warned: "In relation to your soundings to ZWS regarding SEPA's performance, can you please reframe for further discussion until the situation has been discussed with the council.
"We do not believe that representations to another government body [Quango] on the performance of a regulatory body reflects well on us - NES are effectively representing the council to deliver the project - and could cause the council future wider issues with SEPA if they take exception to the complaint route that has been taken.
"As discussed at the last contracts meeting, if NES feel that SEPA's performance needs to be challenged then a meeting is to be convened with the council to discuss the issue, the risks, the approach and who is best placed to take it forward".
After studying the newly released paperwork, a waste industry expert told us: "Quite outrageous and totally unprofessional on New Earth's part. To even contemplate asking any government department to heap pressure on an agency like SEPA beggars belief. I sincerely hope ZWS also told the company to get lost".
To be continued...