Via Howard Winn Reports

Despite the apparent urgency to start work on the HK$19.2 billion incinerator project at Shek Kwu Chau, contractors are wondering why it is taking so long for the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to release the tender documents. In an announcement on December 20 last year, four companies were prequalified to bid for the Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF) but four months later they are still waiting to see the tender documents. One consultant familiar with the project said, “The the tender documents should have been ready by now particularly as the project has been held up by judicial challenges for two and a half years.” HowardWinnReports understands that one possible reason why the tender documents have not been sent out is the emergence of a problem with the proposed construction method for the artificial island which is to house the IWMF.

protest incinerator
Photo: HKFP.

Interestingly the construction method for the IWMF, as outlined in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), is similar to the non-dredge approach adopted for the artificial island currently being built near the airport to house the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities (HKBCF). It is the landing point for the Hong Kong -Zhuhai-Macau bridge project. As readers of this site will be aware, this technique was used for the first time in Hong Kong on the HKBCF and has been fraught with problems. It has caused delays to a project that had already been held up for a year by a Judicial Review in the High Court.

The plan for the IWMF, as with the HKBCF, was to build a sea wall by constructing circular cofferdams which rest on the sea bed and are filled with rocks and building rubble. The area encircled by the sea wall would then be filled and drained. However, HowardWinnReports understands that the government or its consultants Aecom, have had to rethink their preferred method for building the sea wall. It has belatedly been realised that there is a danger that over time these steel cofferdams will rust from the action of the sea and the rocks and rubble they contain will fall into the sea.

Howard Winn
Construction details of cellular cofferdams.

Although there were and still are problems with the HKBCF reclamation, this is not one of them since the HKBCF has sloping walls and the cofferdams are “built into” the wall. The IWMF requires vertical rather than sloping walls since marine vessels need to berth alongside. It is expected that the steel caissons will be replaced by concrete caissons that don’t corrode.

This difficulty has apparently led to a prolonged debate within the EPD as to whether the change in building design requires a variation to the Environmental Permit. It is understood that the EPD believes there should be a variation, though given the pressure on time, those seeking to avoid a variation may prevail.

Readers may recall that last year, the green group Green Sense noticed that the contractor responsible for the HKBCF had used rubble mounds instead of steel cofferdams in parts of the sea wall. The group maintained that this was a breach of the EIA Ordinance. The EPD however concluded that, “the concerned amendments on works details involved no change to the … EIA report and no variation to the [permit] would be required.”

The Environmental Permit for the IWMF clearly states that “The Permit Holder shall ensure that the Project is designed, constructed and operated in accordance with the information and all recommendations described in the EIA Report.”  This doesn’t appear to give the EPD much wriggle room.

Howard Winn
Flow diagram of the incinerator process. Photo: EPD.

In the event that the EPD goes ahead with a variation to the Environmental Permit it raises the interesting possibility that someone may take the opportunity to launch a Judicial Review. It is conceivable that a proponent could argue that given the changes that are anticipated in the design of the sea wall, there are grounds for a JR say on the grounds that the first Environmental Permit should not have been issued given the flaws that have subsequently been identified.

The projected has attracted considerable opposition. Green groups oppose the technology in that they believe the emissions are harmful to health. The EPD has set the IWMF as the cornerstone of its waste management strategy. But its strategy has been criticised for not doing enough to recycle waste and to reduce the volume that needs to be incinerated or gasified. Others criticise the location saying that it was chosen on the grounds of political expediency after Lau Wong Fat, a key government supporter when the decision was made, objected to the incinerator being located in the northwest New Territories where he and his supporters have large property holdings.

The EPD was somewhat coy when asked by HowardWinnReports if it intended to change the way the IWMF’s sea wall was constructed. The department said it was currently preparing, “detailed development works to define the project details, requirements and specifications for the preparation of tender and contract documents.” It went on to say, “As part and parcel of the detailed development works for the preparation of the tenders, we are examining the construction methods to take account of the latest and updated data and information available with a view to further improving the performance of the project.  We aim to finalize the project details and invite tenders from the prequalified applicants by end of this year.” Asked if a variation to the Environmental Permit would be necessary, the EPD would only say that, “The project will be implemented in accordance with the provisions of the EIA Ordinance,” which does not preclude this possibility.

Howard Winn
Outline of proposed site of the IWMF. Photo: EPD.

It’s a moot point whether there has been any slippage in the tentative timetable as set out in the Prequalification Document. In December 2015, the EPD announced the companies that had prequalified, thus meeting the date given in the document. But the document goes on to say that the tentative date for issuing invitations to tender will also be in December 2015 and, “The Contract will tentatively be awarded in end 2016.” The tender documents have not been issued yet and as it takes at least a year for a contract to be awarded following the invitation to tender, there is not enough time for the contract to be awarded by the end of the year as stated in the Prequalification Document.

If the tenders are not sent out by the end of the year then the list of pre-qualified companies will lapse and the process will have start again. This might benefit companies that did not prequalify the first time.

incinerator protest
Hong Kong incinerator protest. File photo: HKFP.

However, the EPD is adamant that there has been no delay. In reply to questions from this site, it said, “The programme information provided in the prequalification document was meant for the reference of the applicants only and was intended for planning purposes and advance notice such that the applicants could get themselves ready earlier to mobilize the necessary resources for the tender preparation and the associated design works immediately upon receiving a formal tender invitation.” This observation has had some contractors scratching their heads.

Documents prepared for the Legislative Council’s Finance committee in October 2014 say, “If the contract can be awarded in 2016-17, we plan to commence the construction works in mid-2017 with a view to commissioning the facilities in 2022-23.

The prequalification document says that contractors have 68 months to complete the work before they start paying penalties. So if the target date for commissioning is mid-2023 tender documents will need to be issued by July 2016 and the project will need to progress smoothly, which for sizeable infrastructure projects like this, is unheard of.

Howard Winn has been a journalist for more than 25 years working mostly in Asia. He was until recently Lai See columnist for the South China Morning Post, a column that focused on the lighter side of business and more. He was previously Deputy Editor and Business Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. His work has been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. His latest work can be found at