By Suren Naidoo

Construction on Durban's new R6,8-billion international airport and Dube TradePort should have started last Friday amid incredibly tight deadlines to open the facility in March 2010.

But the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) has not yet got the green light from the department of environmental affairs and tourism.

Speaking at a Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry business breakfast on Wednesday, Sean van der Valk, Acsa's project leader for the Dube TradePort, said: "The environmental impact assessment report has been sent to the department of environmental affairs and tourism and we are now expecting a record of decision by Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, optimistically before the end of the month or in early July in order to start construction straight away."

In anticipation, advertisements for the supply of materials and subcontracting work like landscaping and partitioning were set to be published in newspapers from this weekend. This comes just weeks after Acsa officially signed the multibillion-rand construction and design contract of the airport with the Ilembe Consortium.

Asked why the tenders were going out before the record of decision, Van der Valk said: "Acsa wanted to get all its ducks in a row, so once a positive decision is made construction would move ahead quickly, taking into account the incredibly tight deadlines to have it ready in 2010."

The Mercury has established that environmental affairs and tourism is in possession of the environmental impact assessment report and that it is examining the findings.

"The department will review the submitted report within reasonable time as stipulated in the Environment Conservation Act Environmental Impact Assessment regulation 1183," said Environmental Affairs and Tourism spokesman Mava Scott, adding that the department was mindful of the deadline for the airport to be ready in 2010.

According to Van der Valk, the new airport was expected to handle 7,5 million passengers annually.

Plans for a new airport on the 2 000ha site north of Durban were first mooted more than 30 years ago - because of projected constraints at Durban International. According to an earlier environmental impact assessment report published last August, construction had begun in 1973 and by 1975 earthworks and a storm drainage system valued at R320-million had been completed.

However, construction was suspended in 1982 with the economic slowdown. Despite being reprioritised by the government in the late 1990s, the project has been dogged by wrangles. The original plans have since been overhauled to include a trade port.