A six-member panel of international experts is due to report this month whether future phases of Hong Kong’s troubled strategic sewage disposal scheme (SSDS) should go ahead.

The team, including Professor Donald Harleman, Ford Professor of Environmental Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, seems likely to agree that phase one should continue. This is despite extensive contractual, construction and technical problems which have delayed completion from May 1997 to late 2001.

A larger question mark hangs over stages two, three and four which continue the network of sewage collection tunnels under Hong Kong Island and also involve a long-sea outfall somewhere south of Lamma Island in the Lema channel.

Environmentalists believe that if further tunnels are built then the construction problems, delays and cost overruns on the phase one tunnels will be repeated. The cost of the tunnels has already ballooned to more than $400M.

Instead they are calling for a more sustainable solution that could include smaller plants, with a higher degree of sewage treatment, to be built, managed and maintained under concessions awarded to the private sector. Harleman has already promised that his team will look into the possibility of private finance for future phases, comparing the situation in Hong Kong with what has been done in other cities.

Two tunnel drives on the 25km long phase one network are close to breaking through. Skanka has about 300m left to tunnel on its section from Tsing Yi to the Stonecutters sewage treatment plant. Industry insiders are predicting a holing through by the end of November.

“There are some small weak-nesses but Skanska knows about them so they shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” said one source. He added: “Skanska has still had to stop work to carry out grouting but the ground is much better.”

A JV of Gammon Construction/Kvaerner is also close to finishing its second drive under Kowloon towards the Stonecutters plant.

Sources are predicting Skanska and Gammon/Kvaerner could finish about the same time.

Once the two sections have holed through, it will only remain for another JV, Paul/Y-Seli to complete its bore from Chai Wan under Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. Its boring machine is currently close to the Eastern Harbour Crossing.

Meanwhile the Hong Kong Government is still locked in a bruising arbitration with the original tunnelling contractor, a JV between Campenon Bernard/Maeda Corporation (CBM).Two hearings have already taken placed and a third is underway. The first found in favour of the government, but CBM subsequently appealed which is still pending. A second is believed to have favoured CBM.

The Drainage Services Department sacked CBM in December 1996 after it stopped work claiming it was too dangerous to continue under the existing contract.The government said CBM was in breach of its contract. The contractor said DSD and its consultants, Montgomery Watson and Mott Connell, were intractable, refusing to accept any of the alternatives the firms put forward, concessions that it said have been made to the contractors brought in to complete the tunnels.

A win for the government would vindicate its stance, but a win for CBM would show the officials that they were wrong and an alternative was possible.