The Sines data center campus in Portugal that is involved in the corruption scandal that brought down the Portuguese government has been accused of damaging natural habitats protected by Portuguese and European legislation.

Start Campus claims to be a "green hyperscale campus," but the first data center on the site in Sines was built on top of a wetland area identified as a priority habitat, despite Start's promises not to do so, according to a study by the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF) reported in Portugal Resident.

start campus sines Google Street View
The building site in September 2023 – Google Street View

Start says that plants from that wetland have been preserved, according to an agreement with the authorities.

Government scandal

In November, Portugal’s prime minister António Costa resigned in response to Operation Influencer, a corruption probe that investigated a hydrogen plant, several lithium mines, and the Start Campus.

Executives from Start Campus were also arrested, and the premises were searched. Start said it was cooperating fully, and made an "unequivocal commitment to transparency, legality, and the integrity of all its operations and in every stage of the development of its investment in Portugal."

Wetland allegations

Now, Portuguese media have alleged that the Start Campus building project has damaged protected wildlife habitats.

According to the Portugal Resident, The INCF's Algarve and Alentejo Regional Directorates inspected the Start site between November 13 – 17, looking at the possible destruction of habitats in the area.

The area, which was previously a disused airfield, features several "charcos," or seasonal wetlands, also referred to as "temporary ponds." These are a Mediterranean feature and home to rare wildlife, and are protected by European and Portuguese law.

The news report says Start had guaranteed to preserve the integrity of one of these wetland areas that lay partially outside the Special Area of Conservation, as a condition of building the first phase of the campus, known as Nest.

Nest is a €200 million investment, expected to create up to 100 direct jobs, while Start says the whole campus will cost €3.5 billion and create 1,200 direct jobs (and 8,000 indirect jobs) by 2028.

ICNF reportedly found that Start had broken this promise, building its first data center pavilion "on top of the identified area."

Biologist Rita Alcazar, from the League for the Protection of Nature, told Observador Online that the first phase had destroyed the charco: “The initial phase is already under construction. At the moment, if you look at the images available on Google, the data center has already been built on top of one of the temporary ponds,” she told the site.

Subsequent phases of Start are planned to go within the Special Area, on a plot that contains two wetland charcos. This phase has yet to begin, but the news site claims the ponds have already been affected by the building work carried out so far.

According to the Portugal Resident report, one of these ponds has been partially landfilled, and the second has been allowed to be invaded by non-native species.

The ICNF has reportedly informed the Alentejo Regional Coordination and Development Commission of these conclusions, which will determine any penalties or sanctions. It has also contacted other bodies including the Portuguese Environment Agency, and the Environmental Impact Assessment Authority.

Start explains

The Sines project covers land containing three charcos - two within the conservation zone, and one which is on the border, partly inside and partly outside the protected area.

The first phase of the development, Nest, as outside the protected area and exempt from an Environmental Impact Assessment, but ICNF set conditions on its approval.

According to a statement from Start, the environmental agency instructed the company to safeguard species of heather (erica cirialis and erica erigena) plants, and the company worked with experts on the local habitat to do so.

The plants were removed from the construction site and put into a nursery along with around 200 tonnes of soil. The company says have thrived in their temporary home and added that they will be later returned to the Nest site.

Once it is operational in March 2024, landscaping will begin on the site, including covering infrastructure and restoring the heather.

start sines campus-building-3
Start Campus's design – Start Campus

Start denies that any other damage has been caused: "Beyond building Nest, no construction has been carried out on future phases of Sines 4.0."

Acknowledging that these future phases will be inside the Special Area, Start says they are "at the design and licensing stage," and says it will work closely with the relevant authorities "to ensure it complies with all requirements to respect the Nature Network before any work is started."

Portugal Resident says environmentalists are not happy that construction has been allowed on the first phase, before subsequent phases have been discussed, saying that this effectively steamrolls the development through, allowing construction to begin quickly and leaving little room to object.

The site also links the environmental allegations with material from the Operation Influencer probe, reporting that wiretaps gathered in the operation make "multiple references to attempts to circumvent the environmental protection of the area."

The site says Start directors were influencing the government and President Costa. Diogo Lacerda Machado, a businessman and friend of Costa’s, was hired as a consultant for the project, and the project allegedly exerted influence through Costa’s chief of staff, Vítor Escária.

Observador reports that former Secretary of State for Energy, João Galamba has been recorded arguing that ICNF should redraw the boundaries of the protected area to allow Start Campus to proceed.

Costa has argued in a public speech since his resignation that lithium mines, data centers, and hydrogen infrastructure should be prioritized. He has promised to clear his name, saying he has a “clear conscience” and “complete trust in justice.”

Start Campus CEO Robert Dunn said in a statement: “Sustainability is at the core of everything Start Campus does."

He continued: “Sines 4.0 will not only regenerate the area and improve a site that was neglected, but will stand as an example of how the tech industry can work with stakeholders to deliver a result that benefits all.”

This story has been updated from an earlier version which did not contain Start's statement.