Contractor in scandal involving HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link made unauthorised design changes, Hong Kong government tells inquiry
- Lawyer for government rebuts claims that Leighton Contractors (Asia) received the green light to trim the top of diaphragm walls
The Hong Kong government has rejected claims of innocence by the main contractor at the centre of a construction scandal plaguing the city’s most expensive rail project, insisting the firm made unauthorised design changes.
The rebuttal came on Tuesday as the government gave its opening statement at an independent inquiry investigating allegations steel bars were cut short to fake proper installation at a station platform on the HK$97.1 billion (US$13 billion) Sha Tin-Central link.
Leighton Contractors (Asia), the main contractor for the platform at Hung Hom station, had argued the Buildings Department gave it the green light to trim the top of some diaphragm walls for supporting the platform without using couplers.
However, Richard Khaw Wei-kiang SC, representing the government, said alterations to the walls and slabs were only briefly mentioned in documents on temporary works submitted to the department through the rail operator, the MTR Corporation.
“It was envisaged by the Buildings Department that, ‘Ah I got your submission in relation to the temporary excavation works, but then I saw something in relation to the permanent slabs and diaphragm walls. But I anticipated you would submit further materials,” Khaw said.
He said the government had noticed the differences and had expected formal submissions on making permanent changes, but it did not accept the revisions outlined.
“We do not see any evidence where the MTR or Leighton came back and said, ‘What we have submitted is already a proper submission, we don’t need to send you anything else,’” he said.
Earlier, Philip Boulding QC, for the MTR Corp, conceded the firm had acknowledged the trimming of the walls via emails, but Leighton had not laid out the changes in a formal proposal.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that the change was simply forgotten in the rush to get the report out,” Boulding said, referring to a report submitted to the government in June, which stated 23,500 couplers were installed on the platform.
But the number was found to be 2,000 fewer, with the government in August pointing out “huge discrepancies” and “conflicting reports” in the rail firm’s submissions. It said at the time another MTR report in July showed Leighton had made alterations to the design drawings of the diaphragm walls without government approval.
The controversy spurred an overhaul of top management at the rail giant, with four executives resigning and CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen planning an early exit.
Boulding said the rail firm in July realised the inaccuracies made after reviewing site photos.
“There was absolutely no intention to deceive … the MTR’s construction management team did not consider the changes to be major issues,” he said.
There were “considerably more pressing matters” for the firm to tackle on a day-to-day basis on the site, he said, insisting the alterations would not pose any danger.
But Khaw rejected claims that changes did not require department approval.
Citing a practice note, he said certain minor changes to superstructure works were exempted from officials’ further acceptance, but diaphragm walls and slabs were classed as foundation works.
“Hence if one relies on that practice to say that minor changes to superstructure works would not require acceptance from the Buildings Department, that is wrong,” he said.
The government and rail giant meanwhile were divided over allegations against the scandal’s whistle-blower, Jason Poon Chuk-Hung, managing director of subcontractor China Technology Corporation.
Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC, representing Leighton, on Monday accused Poon of harbouring a grudge against Leighton arising from disputes over a payment of HK$6 million while the contractor had complained about the performance of Poon’s firm.
Boulding argued Poon’s motivation appeared to be to pressure Leighton into paying his firm substantial extra money which it contended it was due for work.
But Khaw said the case was of public concern no matter what.