A set of 'strictly confidential' documents released on the orders of the Scottish Information Commissioner show councillors in the Scottish Borders agreed to alter a multi-million pound waste management contract BEFORE a programme of technological trials had even begun at a research and development centre.
The high-risk strategy is revealed in a 34-page report which was submitted to a private meeting of Scottish Borders Council (SBC) in October 2012. Each page of the document, written by the Director of Environment & Infrastructure and the Project Manager for the planned £21 million waste treatment plant at Easter Langlee, Galashiels is stamped CONFIDENTIAL - NOT FOR PUBLICATION.
Critics and contract procurement experts claim that by sanctioning a so-called Deed of Variation in their original deal with contractors New Earth Solutions, elected members on the local authority exposed council taxpayers to increased financial risks and created a situation which led to the entire venture collapsing with the loss of £2.4 million of public money.
Not Just Sheep and Rugby plans to run a series of articles based on the newly released material in a bid to bring as much of it as possible into the public domain. It follows lengthy and concerted efforts by SBC to keep the documentation "under wraps" on grounds of alleged commercial confidentiality.
That argument in favour of secrecy was completely blown away by former Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew in a damning report she published in April.
She pointed out that much of the requested material alluded to SBC's deliberations and decision making rather than the technology being touted by the now insolvent New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) and their bankrupt 'funder' New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] or NERR, based on the Isle of Man.
Even the status of the 2012 Deed of Variation document was kept a closely guarded secret by SBC.
We can now reveal a passage on the report's front page states: "As the Contract with Scottish Borders Council represents New Earth Solutions’ first project in Scotland, it will strengthen market confidence in New Earth Solutions’ ability to deliver projects throughout the United Kingdom. Commercial and reputational damage would be caused to New Earth Solutions if the technical or financial details of this report were made public.
"Due to the confidentiality clauses that are in place within the contract currently in place, Scottish Borders Council could be liable for any commercial or reputational damage caused to New Earth Solutions."
The original contract between the parties was signed in April 2011 and required NESG to deliver a conventional Mechanical Biological Treatment [MBT] plant at Easter Langlee capable of dealing with 40,000 tonnes of household rubbish each year.
A second phase of the scheme, up to seven years later, would see the addition of Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) technology to convert the garbage into electricity.
However according to the newly published document,by January 2012 - just nine months after the contract was sealed - New Earth indicated to the council that a MBT facility without the ATT element meant the project could no longer get bank funding. The terms of the deal would have to be radically altered.
The council's project team and NESG were then involved in ten months of discussions in an attempt to overcome "irreconcilable differences". In what amounted to an ultimatum, New Earth's directors told SBC the proposal to build a stand alone MBT would be dropped and a fully integrated MBT and ATT solution would be "delivered from day one".
In a section headed Advanced Thermal Technology Development, the 2012 report to councillors states: "The viability of the project for New Earth Solutions now hinges on the successful delivery of an Advanced Thermal Treatment Technology that can create electricity from gas. New Earth Solutions have developed the Advanced Thermal Treatment Technology to create a consistent gas from the waste derived fuel at their research and development site in Canford, Dorset."
The report goes on to claim that this major step in the technology development had allowed the company to invest tens of millions of pounds in their first commercial energy from waste site in Avonmouth, Bristol.
"This facility is different from the one proposed at Easter Langlee as it utilises the heat from the gas generation to create steam, which in turn is used to create electricity.
"The development of the gas generated electricity has one final process to resolve by creating an effective gas clean-up solution to generate a consistent gas feed to the off the shelf engines. This process has been designed and is under fabrication at the moment, with operational trials programmed for late November 2012, to deliver a technology that has funder confidence by August 2013.
"Officers have visited the sites and been shown the investment in Avonmouth and the research and development in Canford and there has been significant progress in the technology development over the last twelve months".
This would appear to prove beyond reasonable doubt that members of SBC gave their blessing to a form of ATT which had not even completed its journey through the research and development process.
In actual fact the brand of technology recommended by officials and approved by councillors was still not 'fit for purpose' by February 2015 when the Easter Langlee project was abandoned on "technological and financial grounds".
The business operating the Canford site has changed its name from NEAT Technology to Syngas Products. According to the company's website Canford is still a 'demonstration facility', a pre-production unit with new and modified elements.
And the Avonmouth plant had so many operational issues it was 'sold' for nothing to new owners, has been completely shut down since June 2016 and is set to remain closed until at least 2018 while engineers attempt to get it to function properly.