Belgian plant finally gets the go-ahead

But the new Brussels North wastewater scheme - one of Europe's biggest BOOT projects - is facing a challenge in the courts from an unsuccessful contender in the race for the $320M project as Alan George reports from Brussels.

The Aquiris consortium, headed by French-based Vivendi Water and including Japan's Marubeni and a range of Belgian companies, has been selected to develop the much-needed Brussels North wastewater treatment plant.

The plant will occupy a 7.5 ha site in the Haren district on the right bank of the Canale Maritime (the canalised River Senne) which extends broadly north-south through the Belgian capital.

The project also includes the construction of a 6.8km pipeline which will run along the left bank of the canal before crossing beneath it to reach the treatment plant, and the connection of sewage pipes. The canal will account for about one third of the overall costs.

Maximum flow for full treatment will be 8.2m3/sec, while that for pre-treatment and initial clarification only, will be 16.4m3/sec. Flows above that level will be diverted into the Senne without treatment.

The client is the Brussels Region and the consultant is Exlime, itself a joint venture linking France's Merlin (the lead partner) and Excoser and Libost, both of Belgium. The Brussels law firm of Stibbe & Simont is the client's legal and financial adviser, with Belgium's Banque Degroof as the financial sub-consultant.

Court proceedings
The selection of Aquiris in May is being challenged in the courts by Hydronor, one of the losing contenders for the project, which claims that the winning offer did not meet the specifications in the tender.

The client is mystified by the claim from Hydronor - linking companies in the French-Belgian Suez-Lyonnaise des Eaux-Tractebel group - that the wet air oxidation technique for sludge treatment which formed part of the Aquiris offer violated a tender requirement not to employ any form of sludge incineration.

'I don't understand it,' said Marie Derick, Water Adviser to Didier Gosuin, Environment Minister in the Brussels Regional Government. 'It's obvious that they have no chance of winning on this allegation.'

While Hydronor is sueing the Brussels Region, Aquiris has launched its own action against Hydronor insisting that the latter's allegations were 'false and intended only to eliminate Aquiris from the competition.'

Slow start to treatment
Brussels and its region lie in the drainage basin of the River Senne, which has been designated as an ecologically sensitive zone. Until the inauguration of the Brussels South treatment plant last year, all the city's wastewater was discharged without treatment directly into the Senne.

The Senne hydrographic basin has three sub-basins: North, South and Woluwe. Brussels South, sited in Anderlecht on the city's southern edge, serves 360,000 people in the southern third of the city and in a neighbouring part of the Flanders Region and has an average daily dry-weather flow of 65,100m3. It handles discharges from the South sub-basin. Flows from the North and Woluwe sub-basins will go to the Brussels North plant.

In all, Brussels North will treat flows from fifteen Brussels districts and seven neighbouring municipalities in Flanders.

In November 1998 five groups were shortlisted for the scheme. Apart from Aquiris and Hydronor, the shortlisted groups were Bouygues, of France; BSUB (linking Besix and Seeghers, both of Belgium, Britain's United Utilities and Bechtel of the USA); and a group linking Hochtief, RWE Aqua and SHW, all of Germany. However, four days before the closing date the Hochtief group withdrew, with the claim that the pressure of work had prevented it from preparing a full proposal.

One reason for Aquiris' success was the efficacy of its proprietary Athos wet air oxidation sludge treatment process.

'This produces a final residue which is inert, and therefore the volume of materials which must be transported from the plant are very low compared to those required in the other bids,' she said.

'For us, this is very important because it means fewer lorries, and because we have no landfills in Brussels where residue could be dumped,' said Ms Derick.

As the residue is inert there will be no need for it to be taken for final incineration elsewhere, as was the case with the other bids.
The tender stipulated final water quality standards in line with those called for in the EC's Water Directive. For nitrogen, however, a higher standard was required in order to compensate for the lack of tertiary treatment at the Brussels South plant.

'The Directive says that either you must treat nitrogen at all plants, or you must achieve a combined reduction of 75% at all plants taken together,' explained Ms Derick.

A 22-month period has been earmarked for studies and obtaining necessary permits, including approval from the Institut Bruxellois de Gestion de l'Environnement. Construction will take 36 months and commissioning is scheduled for the first half of 2006.

The client will pay nothing until the end of the first year of operation. Aquiris will operate the plant for twenty years, for each of which it will receive an annuity of E49.58M.

Brussels has lagged far behind the rest of Europe in the development of sewerage facilities and last July the EC threatened Belgium with proceedings in the European Court for breaching the 1991 EC directive which required all European cities to be fully served by effective sewerage systems by the end of 1998. The delay stemmed largely from administrative changes in Belgium.

New administration
'When the Brussels Region was created in 1989, there were no treatment plants and no funds earmarked for sewerage,' recalls Marie Derick.

'Brussels South came first because it was a smaller project and therefore less expensive, and because it had been the most studied. 'But we had to create a strong and capable ministry. We had to restructure the whole administration.'

Funding constraints were the main reason for opting for a BOOT formula for Brussels North but managerial simplicity was another important consideration. Brussels South was developed conventionally but it took longer than anticipated because of complications arising from the division of responsibilities between various contractors.

'So many people were involved that, in terms of responsibilities, it was very hard for us to manage,' said Ms Derick.
'We wanted to avoid all of that absolutely on Brussels North. To have one company responsible for studies, construction and operation was absolutely crucial. They have the total responsibility and we pay if it's correctly operated.'

In 1997, the Brussels Capital Region government formally decided that the BOOT approach was the right one for Brussels North.
'We had to select legal and technical consultants who together with the Environment Ministry, wrote the tender. But it was time-consuming and we had to do a huge amount of work before being able to designate the project leader - and we didn't waste time,' said Ms Derick.


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