Threat to pounds 800m bridge

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The Independent Online
Europe's biggest current civil engineering project, the pounds 800m Tagus bridge in Lisbon on which Trafalgar House is joint lead contractor, is under threat from European Commission moves to cut off funding following environmental protests.

Sources close to the Commission say fierce lobbying from the British and Portuguese governments is going on in Brussels after the suspension of payments from the European Union's Cohesion Fund, which is earmarked for poorer regions.

The failure to pay pounds 41m, the latest slice of a pounds 280m grant from the fund, in July would mean loss of a European Investment Bank loan and could mean international bank backers serve notice of default.

"That would really be a major environmental disaster for Portugal, leaving them with a half-complete bridge. I hope in the end common sense will prevail," said Martin Edwards, Trafalgar's chief spokesman on the project, from Lisbon.

The conglomerate, now part of Norway's Kvaerner, has a 25 per cent stake in Lusoponte, the bridge operator, and in Novaponte, the consortium building the 18km-long structure.

Construction started early last year, shortly after Trafalgar and French partner Campenon Bernard won a fiercely contested international tender.

Its planned completion by the end of March 1998 would link the undeveloped south shore of the river Tagus to the capital in time for Lisbon's holding of the Expo 1998 world trade fair a month later.

Portugal had already completed an Environmental Impact Study, required by European directives, before letting the contract. But green groups have persuaded the Commission that it has not been properly followed.

The row centres on the fate of the Samoucao salt pans, a rare nature reserve attracting flamingos and other migrating birds. Greens are also concerned about dredging and dumping of contaminated sludge.

Trafalgar says, however, the green lobby has hyped the dredging issue, while Commission sources say its DG11 environmental directorate seems keen to make an example of a member country just to show its teeth.

Portugal appears largely to blame: funds set aside to buy land to protect Samoucao have met just a tenth of the actual cost.