ERA’s accountability: keeping up the pressure

On Tuesday, slightly after 11am I received a telephone call from the EIA office at the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) informing me that the Waste to Energy (WtE) Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has been resubmitted for public consultation by Wasteserv.

Last October I had presented a number of submissions in response to the Waste to Energy EIA. Hence being informed by ERA of this latest development.

Exchanges between ERA and Wasteserv on the matter are not in the public domain. However, from the various reports in the media one can draw a fairly accurate picture as to what has transpired between 23 December 2020, when the “original” EIA was subject to an online public hearing and last Monday when the ERA website made the “new” EIA available for the latest round of public consultation. The minutes of the public hearing are available on the ERA website.

ERA has rejected the original EIA submitted by Wasteserv and sent it back to the drawing board.

Some may rejoice that ERA has, for the first time ever, rejected an EIA. It would, in my view, be more pertinent to ask why ERA has taken so long to assert its authority.  It has been hibernating for too long a time. There were many instances in the past when it should have acted similarly but it did not. That is an issue worth examining in depth. In particular ERA needs a thorough overhaul of the procedures in use for the vetting of EIA experts and coordinators.

Notwithstanding, I believe that ERA’s rejection of the original WtE EIA is a positive first. It is an encouraging sign that the environmental lobby’s work is bearing fruit. We need to keep up the pressure to ensure that all public authorities get to their senses the soonest. They must realise that the public is fed up with authorities that are generally insensitive to good governance.

From the various press reports it has transpired that ERA’s instructions to Wasteserv were that the EIA had to be drawn up again without making use of the services of Engineer Mario Schembri, the coordinator of the original EIA. ERA issued this instruction in order to address my submissions that Engineer Schembri’s involvement at various levels of the waste management industry in Malta constituted a conflict of interest as a result of which he could be neither independent nor impartial as an EIA coordinator, as is clearly spelt out in sub-regulation 17(2) of the EIA Regulations.

Did ERA need to be in receipt of such submissions in order to act? The relative information is public knowledge and has been so for quite some time: ERA could and should have acted on its own initiative long ago!

I had also pointed out that the EIA documentation submitted under the direction of coordinator Engineer Mario Schembri was incomplete as it quoted relevant reports which were not made available to the public to be scrutinised as part of the public consultation exercise. These reports dealt with the site selection exercise for the WtE project, a major issue of controversy. No explanation was ever forthcoming for this omission. However, I note that the “new” EIA now includes both “missing” reports.  The first report was drawn up in December 2015 while the second one was drawn up in December 2019.

The next steps require an analysis of the coordinated assessment submitted by the new coordinator Dr Joe Doublet specifically in order to identify and assess the difference in his assessment of the technical studies which are being resubmitted. The coordinated assessment by Dr Joe Doublet runs into 507 pages. Its perusal will therefore take some time!

This should lead to considering the extent to which the submitted studies together with the new coordinated assessment address the concerns of stakeholders thereby ensuring that the country’s environmental objectives can be met without subjecting anyone to unnecessary impacts and/or hardships.

Various stakeholders have so far, to their credit, spoken up.

It is up to the environment lobby to ensure that Wastserv’s proposed operations are properly scrutinised. This is the purpose of the EIA process which is managed by ERA.

The current public debate is one way of being sure that ERA’s accountability to the public is real, not fake. This is the only way that the whole community can be protected.

I will keep up the pressure, holding ERA continuously to account for its shortcomings.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 2 May 2021

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