The first phase of the controversial sewage disposal project could be completed before the end of 2001, the Government said yesterday. The new target date, revealed in a paper to legislators, would mean a delay of more than four years in Phase I of the Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme. The project aims to build seven tunnels from urban areas to Stonecutters Island to prevent dumping raw sewage into Victoria Harbour. The Planning, Environment and Lands Bureau said 14.4km out of the total of 25.3km of tunnels had been excavated. It said tunnelling work had achieved steady progress this year, even though machinery breakdowns had occurred in two tunnels. 'We believe it is realistic to expect completion of the works in all tunnels in the second half of 2001,' the paper says. The project, which drew criticism from Director of Audit Chan Yin-tat in his report this year, was delayed when the original contractor suspended work on six tunnels in mid-1996, claiming it could not comply with contract specifications. The work was subsequently re-let under three separate contracts. Work in two tunnels was delayed by problems with machinery installed by the previous contractor. Six tunnels suffered geological problems, with weak rock causing the roofs to collapse at least twice. The bureau said a five-member expert group would be formed to review the cost-effectiveness of phases II, III and IV. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said in his Policy Address this month that the projects should be re-examined. The panel will include experts from Denmark, the United States and China, an international tunnelling expert and a representative from the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers. The panel will look for alternative strategies to treat local sewage and is expected to make its recommendations in the next 12 months.