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Ongoing operation of waste plant hangs in the balance

pentakomo
Pentakomo waste treatment plant

The Pentakomo operation has lunged from one scandal to another. Now operators have been kicked out the question remains how the facility will continue to operate

The continued operation of the beleaguered Pentakomo waste treatment plant appears to be hanging in the balance, after the government recently ordered the facility’s operators to vacate the premises. In seeking to find out what the future holds for the facility, the Sunday Mail was met with a wall of silence – telegraphing that authorities themselves lack a clear picture.

Dubbed a fiasco, the facility’s trajectory has been well documented and does not need to be rehashed in detail.

But briefly: initially the facility was supposed to generate Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF). But the technology for the plant was changed after the contract had been awarded – in what was said to be a blatant irregularity. The mechanical biological treatment of municipal waste stipulated in the tender specs was replaced by what is known as anaerobic biological treatment.

This treatment technique could not produce SRF as the project specs had stipulated, but produces Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) which has a high moisture content and a low calorific value that renders it a poor alternative source of fuel. With no takers for the RDF, the Pentakomo plant has been burying virtually all the treated waste, engaging in the very practice it was set up to end.

The €70 million project was co-financed by the EU, one of the conditions being that the government would find buyers for the derivatives produced at the facility.

What’s new is that on November 4 of this year the government decided to boot out the operators – the joint venture known as Medcon & DB Technologies JV. The joint venture was given 14 days’ notice.

We contacted the Water Development Department – the agency responsible for Pentakomo – with a list of questions.

The only substantive response we got was confirmation that the order to Medcon to vacate the premises indeed amounts to a termination of contract.

As to our other queries, we received the following stock answer: “The government makes all the necessary arrangements for the appropriate operation of the facilities.”

The director of the Water Development Department (WDD) was not available, and functionaries proved extremely reluctant to speak on the record without prior authorisation from the very top.

Signs that the operators were about to get their marching orders appeared in late November, when Medcon publicised a letter that they addressed to President Nikos Christodoulides personally.

In it, the operators complained about authorities’ refusal to grant them a final operating licence. Medcon also claimed that a state of confusion exists where one government agency issues instructions for the burial of the derivatives, only for another agency to deem these instructions unlawful.

The joint venture warned that, unless a solution were found, the companies operating the plant faced financial ruin – ultimately resulting in the failure of the project itself.

Another matter raised by the joint venture related to the high concentration of heavy metals – mostly nickel and chromium – in the solid waste coming into the treatment plant and provided by private businesses.

This high concentration, they said, limits the production of biogas by the facility’s anaerobic units, which also restricts the electrical and thermal energy generated, thus subverting the plant’s economic model.

The implication was that the private businesses were dumping all this material on Pentakomo without bothering to do proper sorting.

According to the Ecological Movement of Cyprus’ Efi Xanthou these allegations largely appear credible.

“For years, authorities have steadfastly refused to give the operators a final permit, arguing that the joint venture was in breach of specifications and methodologies. So Medcon counter-proposed to make certain changes to the plant. They were ignored, as far as I can tell.”

Next the operators proposed doing the sorting of incoming materials themselves. Again, the government did not bother responding.

“It does seem they were hamstrung every step of the way,” said Xanthou.

“Here’s another question: why terminate the contract now, when by June 2024 the law will come into effect for pay-as-you-throw, a system which will guarantee the sorting of waste? Why not wait until then? It would go some way to addressing some of the problems cited by the operators.”

So what now? Along with the eviction notice, the government stated it will work with the WDD and the development company of the Limassol district (Anelem) and the household waste management company (Sedal) to run operations at Pentakomo temporarily until a new operator is found.

The government will hire a consultant to prepare tender documents for the operation of the facility as it is currently, as well as for its upgrade in accordance with the Municipal Waste Management Plan 2022-2028, for a period of at least 10 years.

But Xanthou said she can see a few problems going forward.

“The technology used in the plant is highly specialised – so will civil servants know what to do with it? It’s not like it’s plug-and-play.

“Nor is it clear whether the government intends to get rid of the technicians, that is to say, the employees, along with management.”

Another issue is whether the government can impound – so to speak – the machinery to keep the facility running. As the machinery belongs to the operators, the latter are almost certain to take legal measures to block such a move.

“What should have us worried,” continued Xanthou, “is that on top of potential EU fines, taxpayers may also get saddled with court damages awarded to the operators.”

Another source who has tracked the Pentakomo debacle for years, but who preferred to speak anonymously, remarked: “Now the real fun starts. You’re telling me that government functionaries, with no expertise, will enter the plant and just start operating it? Let me get my popcorn.”

The same source suggested that the entire endeavour devolved into a travesty because initially the contract for Pentakomo was intended to be awarded to a company by the name of Helector.

“The tender specs had been tailor-made for them. But things turned out differently. With Helector out of contention because of their legal troubles, the contract for Pentakomo went to Medcon, then they had to change the facility’s specifications, and the rest is history.”

In 2017 – the same year the Pentakomo plant went operational – charges were brought against Helector, who at the time operated two landfills – one at Marathounda, Paphos, the other at Koshi, Larnaca. The company was alleged to have overcharged municipalities by reporting higher waste volumes while public officials looked the other way in return for backhanders.

In 2020, at the end of a long trial, Helector was found guilty (with others) of corruption. The company was fined €183,000 for bribery and forging accounts with the aim of defrauding.

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