In first EU-funded project, Chinese contractor rises to environmental challenges
As Croatia was hit by another round of heat wave in early August, Slovakian holiday-maker Martin Tulipan was cooling off on the beach of Komarna, a small village facing the Mali Ston Bay in southern Croatia.
Less than one kilometer away from him, various construction vessels were busy around huge steel piles that had been knocked into the seabed of the Adriatic. "We heard that a Chinese company is building a bridge here. I am worried if they will follow EU rules regarding environmental safety," Tulipan told Xinhua.
A Chinese consortium led by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) won the bid to build the first phase of the Peljesac Bridge and its access roads early last year.
The 2.4km-long cable-stayed bridge will connect the southern tip of the Croatian mainland to the Peljesac Peninsula, thus bypassing a short strip of Bosnian and Herzegovina's territory, giving Croatia its long-awaited territorial continuity and traffic convenience.
Tulipan's worry is shared by some who allege that Chinese contractors and investors do not care much about environmental issues as they explore overseas markets under the Belt and Road Initiative.
A few hundred meters south of the jolly beach, Xu Zengquan, head of the project's Safety and Environmental Protection Department, explained why his company was confident in meeting strict environmental laws of the European Union (EU).
"First of all, the establishment of my department shows how much we care about environment," said Xu.
The construction site of the Peljesac Bridge happens to be in a natural reserve, where the water quality is among the best in the EU. The area is also dotted with oyster farms which have been producing European flat oysters since ancient Roman days.
During the piling phase that lasted from January to May this year, 150 steel piles were knocked into the seabed, with the longest pile measuring at 130 meters.
Noise was inevitable. To deal with it, CRBC introduced "air bubble", a noise-cancelling technology that was originally developed to reduce noises of submarines.
The efforts seemed to be effective, as sound-sensitive dolphins could still be spotted during the piling phase, Xu showed a video clip on his cell phone featuring dolphins jumping out of the water near a construction vessel in March.
After piling, drilling would start inside the hollow piles to reach deeper into the seabed. Following local environmental requirement to maintain water quality, the contractor pumps out the silt and takes it to a dumping site 20 nautical miles away.
As an experienced engineer who has participated in many major infrastructure projects like the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, "Go Green" has always been an important principle to Xu. He understands that this is also a guideline of the Chinese government as it encourages enterprises to be actively involved in Belt and Road projects overseas.
Working on an EU project is even more challenging to Xu's company because of the profound system of well-established laws and regulations.
Fortunately, a local consortium led by Zagreb-based IGH is tasked with supervising the project, and CRBC has taken its advices on various aspects including environmental protection.
"This is our first EU-funded infrastructure project. We are studying EU rules and regulations and trying to implement them. We have also learned a lot from our local supervisor," Xu told Xinhua.
Garbage disposal is another major environmental issue that has to be dealt with, as more than 400 workers, engineers and managers are currently working on the project.
CRBC has hired four local companies to take care of different kinds of garbage. Containers and dustbins for kitchen waste, paper, batteries, oil and chemicals can be found everywhere. There are tanks on the vessels to ensure not a single drop of dirty water is dumped into the sea.
CRBC has also paid over one million kuna (150,000 US dollars) to local company Tehnix for four sets of Biorotor garbage disposal systems.
Thanks to all these environmental protection measures, the huge project that costs 280 million euros (310 million US dollars) and takes 36 months has so far received only one complaint, indirectly, from residents of Brijesta, a village in the nearby municipality of Ston.
"We heard from Ston that some people from Brijesta had complained about a dusty unpaved road on the peninsula. We took immediate action by hiring local fire engines to spray water on that road," said Xu, emphasizing that CRBC respects local community and values social responsibility.
To Damjan Kulas, who travels every summer from Bosnia and Herzegovina to spend two or three days in Komarna, the sea here is among the cleanest in the world.
"Since the bridge construction started, I haven't noticed any changes. Water is crystal clear. You can see how many people are here at the beach. The project is financed by the European Union and I'm sure that the Chinese company will finish the construction of the bridge while taking great care of the environment," he said.
Goran Jerkic who came from Zagreb also agreed that the water quality hadn't changed since the project officially kicked off last summer.
"I was fishing near the construction site and there is plenty of fish. I hope that it will stay like that in the future. If the bridge will negatively affect the environment, even in ten years, we will tear it down," Jerkic said.