Land fiasco leaves wildlife group in a fix

Acres won $26.5m in damages in suit against errant contractor but may not get a cent of it
Carolyn Khew Straits Times 13 Dec 15; Also on AsiaOne

In 2004, wildlife rescue group Acres (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society) got the licence to build a desperately needed animal shelter.

The Singapore Zoo was running out of space to keep endangered animals that had been illegally imported here and rescued from dealers and homes. The planned sanctuary was to give up to 500 exotic animals - such as star tortoises, slow lorises and sugar gliders - a place to stay and recover before they were returned to their places of origin.

Today, Acres still does not have its shelter. Instead, it has a poisoned piece of land about the size of two football fields, which will cost at least $20 million to fix, a court award for $26.5 million in damages which it will probably not see a cent of, and broken dreams.

"We were so close," said Acres executive director Louis Ng, as he talked about its "biggest setback".

"We had not only completed the construction of the shelter, but volunteers had painted it and planted trees. It was all ready to go."

HERCULEAN TASK

It's not just about taking out the contaminated earth. You need someone to take it out and clean it before it can be safe to dump into the landfill.

ACRES EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR LOUIS NG, on the difficulty in finding a contractor to clean up the group's site
But the area then became plagued by a stench and brackish water started to seep through to the surface. A National Environment Agency probe found the land filled with decomposing woodchips and other contaminated earth that polluted the groundwater.

A.N.A Contractor (Anac) and its director Tan Boon Kwee had been contracted by Acres to level low-lying areas of the land.

But the firm filled the site with contaminated earth and woodchips which rotted over time. Acres sued the firm and won. In 2013, Anac was ordered to pay $26.5 million in damages to the non-profit group.

But Tan, 52, had started liquidating his assets and giving his cash to friends and relatives. He was jailed for 14 months in October, but Acres got nothing - not even the $206,000 that Tan was supposed to pay for the group's legal costs.

There is little that Acres can do now except to depend on the goodwill of contractors willing to clean up the 1.5ha site, said Mr Ng, who is also a Nee Soon GRC MP. So far, a few contractors have inspected the site but none has taken up the job.

"It's not just about taking out the contaminated earth. You need someone to take it out and clean it before it can be safe to dump into the landfill," he said, adding that the earth is believed to contain toxic materials. He suspects the contractor had levelled the site using alternating layers of good and bad earth, increasing the complexity of cleaning up the site.

When The Sunday Times visited the site located in Jalan Lekar recently, the area was covered with thick overgrown plants. Enclosures for animals had rusted and some parts of the ground were sunken.

Mr Ng said he had never expected things to turn out this way as Anac had previously taken up major construction jobs and offered the lowest bid at $750,000 for the tender.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said that to better protect themselves against such errant contractors, non-profits could seek volunteers who are professionals in construction, for example, to help assess prospective contractors.

"Non-profits often feel compelled to work with contractors offering the lowest quotes for a job. It is not a case of 'penny wise, pound foolish'. They may lack the ability to make a considered decision when awarding a contract given the lack of in-house expertise," he added.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said non-profits could consider insisting on a performance bond before a construction contract is awarded so that they can recover some money if something goes wrong.

He added that in this case, Acres has exhausted all means. "It really is a tough situation to be in."

The rescued animals are now kept in an outdoor sanctuary located near the Acres office.

Responding to queries, the Singapore Land Authority said there are no immediate plans for the site and it is monitoring the situation.

For Mr Ng, the good thing is that Acres is continuing its work.

"We built modified enclosures for the animals and we are still doing our rescue work," he said. "If we had just given up, I think the over 4,000 animals we rescued would be dead."

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