Mercaptan: blunder or collusion ?

Mercaptan: an error or a plot?

The report of the mercaptan board of inquiry appointed by Finance Minister Tonio Fenech was published recently.

The inquiry limited itself to Enemalta operations and did not examine the role of other authorities to determine whether they could or should have acted in another manner in their dealing with mercaptan. However, the behaviour of these other authorities results when the report recounts the development of the mercaptan story as recollected by the 58 persons, mostly Enemalta employees, interviewed by the board of inquiry.

Reading through the report one wonders how it is possible, 12 years into the 21st century, to have a public corporation such as Enemalta being led in such an incompetent manner. Enemalta’s leadership includes the so-called “hands-on” politicians who, day in day out, had a definite say in its day-to-day management. They take credit for all that is positive but then they shift the blame onto others when it suits them.

Enemalta was not capable of handling the chemical mercaptan. As a result of an incident occurring at Enemalta’s Qajjenza gas plant on September 19, 2007, Enemalta officials panicked and committed one blunder after another leaving an odour trail of mercaptan at Qajjenza, Corradino, Bengħajsa and Mġarr.

Enemalta sought the advice of various authorities and, subsequently, interpreted the response as a “tacit approval” to proceed with the destruction of mercaptan through incineration, first at Bengħajsa and then at Mġarr.

Events have not necessarily occurred as described by Enemalta officials. The report of the board of inquiry states on page 40 that the information supplied by Enemalta was either contradictory or lacking in detail. Earlier, on page 32, the board had expressed doubts on the Enemalta version of the events, which actually happened, in particular when the whole saga was triggered at Qajjenza on September 19, 2007. The report indicates that the board of inquiry is of the opinion that the incident at Qajjenza was triggered by a dosing operation of LPG with mercaptan, which operation was scheduled for September 16, three days before the date identified by Enemalta as the day of the incident.

If Enemalta’s ingrained incompetence is not enough, the regulatory failures of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in this saga give a new significance to the Mepa reform. Mepa, as a result of the mercaptan saga, is depicted in its true colours: being strong with the weak and weak with the strong.

Mepa was aware of the problems being encountered as a result of Enemalta’s lack of planning in dealing with mercaptan. In fact, the inquiry report states on page 10 that when the mercaptan containers were transferred from Qajjenza to Corradino, Mepa and other authorities were informed by the Civil Protection Department of the complaints it had received relative to acute odours.

The report goes on to state that Enemalta officials together with the private contractor that Enemalta appointed to deal with the unwanted mercaptan met Mepa officials at Hexagon House. Mepa acknowledged that an “informal meeting” was held at the foyer of Hexagon House but its officials insisted with the board of inquiry that they only advised Enemalta to consult with CPD.

Mepa officials were aware of the seriousness of the situation, yet, they did not consider it appropriate to pre-empt Enemalta from proceeding with its plans to destroy the mercaptan through incineration.

In terms of regulation 5 of the Waste Management (Permit and Control) Regulations (Legal Notice 337 of 2001), Mepa is authorised to take all the necessary steps, both pre-emptive and remedial, to ensure that hazardous waste (such as mercaptan) is dealt with so as not to be a threat to human health and the environment. But the Mepa official meeting informally with Enemalta officials in a state of panic accompanied by the waste management licensee failed to understand the developing emergency. Or so it seems!

At this stage, Mepa could easily have avoided the whole mercaptan saga by making full use of its powers to bring Enemalta to order.

The Mepa official dealing with Enemalta representatives failed to properly assess the situation. It seems that the janitor at Hexagon House would have dealt with the matter in a more ­responsible manner.

There is an alternative interpretation of the facts. The apparent Mepa blunder could be a case of collusion to circumvent waste management regulations. This is the possible significance of the Enemalta claim that there was “tacit approval” by Mepa of the mercaptan incineration. Tacit meaning being understood without actually being stated.

All this leads to one inevitable conclusion: in Malta we have two sets of environmental rules. The first set is for the common citizen who is expected to observe them to the letter. The second set is for big-heads and public corporations. These big-heads and public corporations can get away with murder because Mepa is strong with the weak and weak with the strong.

This article was published in The Times today Saturday May 26, 2012

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