Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Council should have axed Borders waste contract 15 months sooner


Members of Scottish Borders Council should be made to explain in full why they granted a cash-strapped firm of waste treatment contractors a 15-month stay of execution to work on a worthless public sector project, allowing expenditure to escalate while funding and technological issues could not be solved, according to an industry insider.

Another collection of confidential correspondence between the council, New Earth Solutions Group [NES] and various consultants commissioned by the local authority spanning the period December 2013 to August 2014 provides yet more damning evidence that the entire £21 million Easter Langlee waste treatment contract was in complete disarray with no sign of any worthwhile progress.

The email trail also suggests SBC was fobbed off with excuses and offers of temporary solutions as the technology tests continued to disappoint and malfunction.

The files released under Freedom of Information show that in late 2013 NES had indicated in a letter to SBC a potential two year delay to the project while a demonstrator facility was built at the company's Canford site in the south of England. This would have entailed a revised construction programme at the Galashiels site with a new start-up date given as July 2017.

A redacted email from Nevin Associates, the council's financial advisers, dated December 3rd 2013 states: "To some extent the information in the November report has been overtaken by events, and in particular NES's advice that they will not now be in a position to commence the construction of the advanced thermal treatment [ATT] facility until June 2016, i.e. more than two years later than the originally scheduled date."

The censored report had revealed that the technology trial starting on November 17 stopped after - hours when 'the fuel that forms the - and in order to prevent significant damage to the plant, the plant was shut down'.

According to Nevin: "This may have been the final incident that convinced NES to come clean and admit that there was no chance of implementing NEAT [the brand name for their unproven technology] on a commercial scale in 2014."

The council is then told: "The revised programme indicates that the detailed design of the Canford project will be completed by April 2014, and construction of the Canford demonstration facility will commence in July 2014. The facility itself will, on this programme, only become operational in July 2015, and revised schedule for the Easter Langlee facility - i.e. start on site in June 2016 - implicitly assumes that there will be no significant problems at Canford. If there are, then one could anticipate further delays, or even cancellations, of the Easter Langlee ATT facility".

But it seems that despite even that stark warning flagging up further costly delays, councillors were able to sanction a six-month contract moratorium in February 2014 to give NES even more time to tackle the long standing issues. And the contract was not finally abandoned until February 2015 by which time council taxpayers were at least £2.4 million worse off.

Followers of the fiasco will recall that the council signed up for the useless form of ATT in October 2012 thinking they would become leaders in the field of waste disposal in Scotland, so perhaps a decision to withdraw from the contract barelya year later might have damaged them politically.

So what did in fact happen while the moratorium was in place? Virtually nothing, it would appear.

SLR Consulting, SBC's technology consultants, reported on April 22 2014: "We are struggling a little to understand the explanation from NES regarding the difficulties with testing. Once again our feeling is that NES continues to fire fight, dealing with each individual issue in isolation rather than considering the overall impact on plant operation."

In a further message dated May 30 2014 SLR wrote: "CANFORD GASIFIER AND R&D PROGRESS - We would anticipate seeing a thorough and continuous programme of trial and test with a series of upgrades and modifications engineered into the schedule, and then a break to accommodate a redesign for installation of the new facility.

"Instead NES appear to be pushing on without any clear plan and without really being certain of what they need to have in place and without making much concession to the fact they are unsure of what they will need".

When Not Just Sheep & Rugby showed the latest releases to one expert observer his response was strongly critical of the way the council had dealt with New Earth Solutions Group.

He told us: "The technical problems have not been resolved to this day, and were not going to be resolved in six months! Councillors should have known the highly experimental nature of the technology they were being asked to back.

"They should have been informed by independent experts that they were deciding to gamble with public money - and that the odds were against them (and the pay off if they won was not all that great). SBC should have been well ware that the technology in which they were investing public money had never been used for a mixed waste feedstock as was proposed. Why were they even considering a technology that had not been demonstrated to work?

"Led up the garden path? Sounds more like they were shuffled into a fancy limousine by a bunch of thugs who work for the big boss".

The notion that they were told that "NES appear to be pushing on without any clear plan and without really being certain of what they need to have in place and without making much concession to the fact they are unsure of what they will need" and yet SBC did not abandon the project then and there is rather damning."

Further evidence from the moratorium to follow......

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