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Desal advisers get $30m contracts

Published: The Age, 17-May-08
Author: Peter Ker

The company that advised Melbourne's water authorities to build a desalination plant near Wonthaggi has subsequently won more than $30 million in contract work on the project.  The desalination plant has proved to be a financial bonanza for consulting firm GHD, which has won two tenders this year.  Records show that GHD will be paid $27.9 million for providing 18 months of technical and engineering advice to the project.

In a separate tender, GHD was also chosen to provide planning and environmental advice at a cost of $2.46 million.

The start date on the contracts was just seven months after GHD told Melbourne Water and the Government: "It is feasible to desalinate seawater to produce up to 100 gigalitres from four shortlisted locations."

That recommendation was made in the feasibility study written by GHD in June 2007, which helped inform the Government's decision to build the plant.

The same GHD report influenced the decision to locate the plant on the Bass Coast.

Anti-desalination campaigner John Wright said he did not allege that GHD's work had been compromised, but he said it was clear the company had benefited from the desalination project going ahead.

He said public confidence would be enhanced if companies hired to recommend projects to the Government and its authorities were prevented from later winning contracts to help build the same projects.

"Otherwise there can be an incentive to come up with the right conclusion that the Government wants," he said.

Opposition water spokeswoman Louise Asher said the Brumby Government needed to clear the air.

"It looks as though there is a potential conflict of interest. The Government needs to explain why this occurred," Ms Asher said.

Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Greg Meyer said the contracts were handled appropriately.

"GHD was awarded these tenders in partnership with other service providers in accordance with standard procurement procedures," he said.

"The company has an extensive record at providing technical and environmental services on large infrastructure projects."

GHD was also the author of a report in 2006 that told the Government that boosting Melbourne's drinking supplies with recycled sewage would be cheaper and less energy intensive than building a seawater desalination plant.

A spokesman for GHD declined to comment when contacted by The Age yesterday.

Attempts by anti-desalination campaigners to delay work on the project were dismissed in the Federal Court yesterday, meaning that work on the desalination plant can proceed as scheduled.

Peter Ker is a senipr writer

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