Last Thursday was one of those very rare occasions when the MEPA Board, considering two different development applications submitted by the Freeport Terminal operator, decided on the one which will be beneficial to Birżebbuġa residents.
I must confess that I was surprised at this, as I am accustomed to a MEPA which thinks and acts differently. I do not know whether Thursday’s sitting was a one-off or else whether it signals that the Authority has at last realised that the quality of life of our communities should be the real focus of its endeavours. Only time will tell.
The first application was to renew an approved permit in connection with dredging work aimed at enabling larger ships to make use of the West Quay of Terminal 1. The second application proposed the installation of larger cranes with 140-metre jibs. The cranes currently in use have 110-metre jibs.
After repeated representations from the Birżebbuġa local council, as well as Birżebbuġa residents, MEPA-weeks before Thursday’s meeting- informed the Freeport Terminal Operator that siting these large cranes along the West Quay of Terminal 1 was unacceptable due to their impact on the quality of life of residents, a number of whom live just across the road from the Freeport Terminal boundary wall.
The management of the Freeport Terminal complied with MEPA’s instructions to relocate the 140-metre jib cranes. This, however, begged the further question as to whether or not the pending dredging work was, in fact, now required.
The MEPA Board unanimously accepted the submission from the local council that, in view of the relocation of the cranes, there was no further need for the dredging permit and this was therefore not renewed.
Regarding the second application, seeking authorisation to replace a number of existing cranes with 110-metre jibs with more modern models having 140-jibs, the local council sought an explanation as to why a proposal for the siting of a power station close by – at il-Mara Bengħajsa (with an 80-metre high chimney) in the late 1980s was shot down by the Civil Aviation authorities, who are now accepting the installation of 140-metre high jibs.
During the discussion, it transpired that the clearance issued by Transport Malta was ambiguous. In fact, Transport Malta stated that the 140-metre jib cranes “will penetrate one of the established aeronautical protection surfaces by circa 18m and although this situation is not desirable, given the importance of this facility to the economy, on exceptional basis and without prejudice to any future request it is being considered acceptable subject to the following mitigations ………………”
You have read correctly. The 140-metre jib cranes are “not desirable” yet they are “being considered acceptable” by Transport Malta due to the importance of the Freeport to the economy.
The MEPA Chairman is insisting that Transport Malta owes us an explanation. He could have added that safety should not be compromised for any reason, including “economic importance”.
In a further twist in the whole saga, the Freeport Terminal management proceeded with the installation of the new cranes without waiting for a MEPA decision on the development permit requested.
Public opinion has been repeatedly critical of MEPA for its insensitivity to the impact of developments on residents in various localities. Economic operators were afforded sufficient protection to be able to over-ride the growing environmental concerns of our communities.
The same MEPA Board which, last Thursday, unanimously decided to refuse the renewal of a development permit to carry out dredging work had, 18 months ago, voted by a large majority in favour of changes to the Freeport’s environmental permit such that it would have been permissible to carry out repairs to ships and oil rigs at the Kalafrana Terminal. It was only at the insistence of the Birżebbuġa Local Council that the Freeport Terminal management opted not to use the permit issued.
The question to which I seek an answer to is whether Thursday’s events signify that MEPA has awoken up from its slumber and smelled the coffee It would indeed be commendable if it is capable of standing up to corporate (and state) arrogance.
Ending MEPA’s Rip van Winkle phase would signify that, after all, the possibility to improve the quality of life in Malta through better environment protection does exist, after all. But time is running out.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 22 November 2015