If pigs had a vote

pigs

The latest shots in Malta’s environmental siege that followed so soon after the Żonqor debacle, were fired earlier this week by Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius who, accompanied by PN Sports spokesperson David Agius launched a call for expressions of interest in connection with the Concession for the Design, Build and Operation of Motor Recreation and Education Park.

The call specifies the functions which must be fulfilled, namely national and international motor racing events, motor sport training and other related activities including motor research and development. Ancillary activities deemed to complement the project can also be included.

The terms of the call are very wide such that it is ensured that those responding would have sufficient flexibility. The proposed site has not been selected yet, although, as declared by Parliamentary Secretary Agius, the government is aware of the available potential sites due to it having been lobbied by motor racing groups for quite some time. TVM news stated on Tuesday that three specific sites have been identified. From other sources it is known that one of the sites is in Ħal-Far while a second one lies in the limits of Siġġiewi. The location of the third site is so far unknown.

On Thursday, Siggiewi Mayor Karol Aquilina commented that the area known as Ta’ San Niklaw, close to id-Dar Tal-Providenza Siġġiewi, which, he said, was potentially being considered as a candidate site. I think that it is highly unlikely that the Siġġiewi site would be selected in view of the fact that all indications in the past three years have pointed towards the Ħal-Far area as the preferred location. But one never knows.

The call does not limit the site area. Motor racing enthusiasts are speaking of approximately 80 hectares of land which would be required for a three to five kilometre racing track as well as the ancillary facilities. In 2013, during the electoral campaign, the footprint referred to was much smaller, around half the size.

The call for expressions of interest refers to protection of the environment, protection of cultural heritage, long-term sustainability of the project as well as adherence to Natura 2000 protection criteria. Interestingly, however, the call makes no commitment to protect agricultural land. This may be very indicative as to what lies in store.

The scale of the project and its uptake of land, is massive by Maltese standards. It is also out of proportion to the size of the Maltese islands.

Irrespective of the selected site, the land used will undoubtedly include large areas of agricultural land still in use. In good time we will also be informed that abandoned agricultural land will also be incorporated into the project. In such a large area, most of which has never been substantially disturbed, it is also inevitable that some archaeological remains will surface.

There are also issues of air quality and noise pollution. These impacts will be of relevance to communities closest to the selected site. The submitted proposal will undoubtedly include mitigation measures, in particular those relative to noise pollution. Residents have votes and as a direct consequence of this fact there will be a concerted effort to minimise the impact of noise in residential areas. The extent to which this is successful and/or acceptable can only be established when the exact parameters of the proposal are known. Noise pollution will, however, be a major issue irrespective of the identified site.

The Habitats Directive of the European Union is applicable to a number of areas in the Maltese islands. Through the implementation of this Directive, it is not only the specific sites which are afforded protection. This protection extends beyond the sites to activity in the area surrounding the sites in so far that the said activity will have an impact on the protected sites.

The proposals to be submitted will have an impact on nocturnal natural life on the selected site and its surroundings. Such nocturnal life is heavily impacted by both noise and light pollution which will result from motor sport activities .

Farm animals in the vicinity of the selected site will also be in for a hard time. Noise pollution from the racing track will have a considerable impact on the operation of farms as well as on farm animals.

Pigs, cows and birds do not vote. If they did we would definitely not need to worry about ODZs any more.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 4 October 2015

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Barely scratching the surface

The Noise White Paper, just published for public consultation, identifies the need to coordinate the existing fragmented administrative structures as its first target. This is being done in the belief that it will eventually lead to a smoothening out of administrative inconsistencies. Better coordination could also ensure that, in the long term, issues in respect of which the authorities have, to date, been reluctant to act upon can be addressed in an appropriate manner. Hopefully.

The White Paper deals with the abatement of neighbourhood noise. Its reach should have been much wider. It postpones dealing with the noise generated by fireworks and village feasts to some future date. Cultural aspects and tradition are reasons used to justify this postponement. In reality, the government at this time cannot withstand the anticipated reaction of the fireworks lobby, which has yet to come to terms with restrictions based on safety as is evidenced by reactions to the findings and recommendations of the November 2011 inquiry report on accidents in fireworks factories. Clearly, the government considers that now is not the time to regulate excessive fireworks noise. On the eve of a general election, votes are considered to be a more important consideration.

We have been informed (correctly) that the EU Environmental Noise Directive is not applicable to our airport because the traffic it handles is below the established threshold.

The White Paper does not address the issue of noise generated by aircraft approaching or taking off from Malta’s only airport when flying over residential areas. In particular, the impact of approaching aircraft on Birżebbuġa’s residential area at all times of the day (including during the night) comes to mind.

Now, to be fair, one must state that the airport cannot be transferred to any other site. The flight paths leading to the airport are fixed and their use is determined by the prevalent winds. Malta needs its only airport to be operational. Yet, its operation must be such that it does not cause unnecessary hardship to residential areas along the approaches to and around the airport.

This leaves only one option: regulating the airport’s operating times to restrict aircraft movements during the silent hours as is done at Heathrow, Brussels and Fiumicinio, to mention three airports with which readers are familiar.

The airport authorities need to encourage the use of less noisy aircraft through the determination of differentiated aircraft landing charges dependent on the noise generated by the aircraft. It is about time that the airport authorities start respecting the surrounding communities. This is a missing but essential element of the airport’s sustainable development strategy.

The Noise White Paper draws up a list of those authorities that are empowered to regulate some aspect of noise control. One would expect that the police, the Malta Tourism Authority, the health authorities and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority coordinated by the Noise Control Board to now be in a better position to ensure that commercial outlets (particularly those in a mixed use area) are no longer a nuisance to residents in the vicinity.

It should also be less problematic to deal with nuisance caused by air conditioners fixed in the most awkward places.

But noise does not only impact the health of human beings. It also has a health impact on flora and fauna. This is partly regulated through the Habitats Directive of the EU, which is an integral part of Maltese law.

It is positive that the Noise White Paper recognises this and emphasises the need to ensure its implementation. This should now place more onus on Mepa to ascertain that open-air activities generating excessive noise are immediately brought to order. Examples that come to mind are open air discos at Buskett, Paradise Bay and Ta’ Qali. The first two impact biodiversity in Natura 2000 sites and the last is too close to residential areas, particularly Attard. The aborted Mistra “Spin Valley Disco”, which the Nationalist Party and its stooges at Mepa defended before the 2008 election, would also fall foul of these provisions as it was sited right in the middle of a special area of conservation.

Excessive noise also has a damaging impact on the welfare of animals, both farm animals and pets. The impact of noise on farms and agriculture is completely ignored by the White Paper.

Fireworks regulations, for example, are only concerned with residential areas and the distances to be observed from areas that serve as a residence for more than 100 humans.

Excessive noise in agricultural areas severely impacts agricultural production (like milk, poultry, eggs, rabbits…) and can have a considerable economic impact.

It is up to the minister in question to decide whether to prefer the fireworks at the expense of negative impacts on animal husbandry. He may not worry unnecessarily as animals do not vote!

While the White Paper on Noise Prevention is welcome, it barely scratches the surface. We need to go deeper and tackle areas ignored by the White Paper because noise pollution is an issue that has been neglected for far too long.

 

This article was published in The Times of Malta , April 14, 2012

 

on the same subject on this blog :

7th February 2009 : The value of silence

7th November 2009 : When pigs are able to vote

Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 In his address to Parliament last May, the President had stated: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

In December 2006, the National Sustainability Commission had drawn up the National Sustainable Development Strategy. Having been approved by Cabinet, it is appropriate that the pre-budget document just published ignites the debate on its implementation. The strategy is a blueprint for action representing a holistic perspective as to how this country should be administered. Its eventual handling will in due course give a clear indication of the government’s real views on sustainable development.

Malta’s energy policy is undoubtedly up for an upheaval. Due to the absence of strategic planning over the years, Malta is one of the few countries without any significant alternative energy generated. Other countries identified their vulnerability because of fuel oil dependency years ago and took action. Denmark has since built up its wind energy industry from scratch since the oil crises in the 1970s and is now a world leader. In 2005 Denmark generated 18.5 per cent of its electrical energy needs through wind.

The pre-budget document identifies near shore wind technology as the next step forward, contributing 95MW of wind energy or seven per cent of Malta’s projected electricity demand in 2010. The shortfall in meeting the EU target of having 10 per cent of electricity demand met by alternative energy is planned to be met with wind turbines at other exposed land sites and industrial estates, including those to be identified within the framework of the eco-Gozo project.

The pre-budget document focuses on macro-generation and does not give sufficient weight to micro-generation of energy, both with small wind turbines as well as with photovoltaic panels. It must be borne in mind that micro-generation if adequately motivated could add up to a substantial amount of energy generated through alternative technology. In addition to residential application (not flats or maisonettes!), schools and public buildings could be ideal sites for the micro-generation of energy. Moreover, one can consider fitting micro-turbines to the structures of the hundreds of disused windmills (water pumps) that pepper the countryside. These windmills were strategically located by our ancestors in wind-prone areas and are now an integral part of the Maltese countryside.

The pre-budget document rightly refers to energy generated through waste. It speaks of the generation of electricity using animal waste through biogas in a facility to be constructed in the north of the island. This is a long overdue initiative. However, I believe that it is badly conceived. The lessons that should have been learnt following the Sant’ Antnin debacle seem to have been forgotten.

The point at issue is whether one facility covering the whole island is sufficient or desirable. Would it be a good idea to transport animal manure across the whole island to a facility in the north?

One point resulting from the public debate relative to the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant was the applicability of the proximity principle. The required plant should be sited as close as possible to the source of the waste being processed. This had led to the Sant ‘Antnin projected operation itself being scaled down to deal with one third of the islands’ waste. The rest, it was stated, should be processed on other sites (possibly two) that have not yet been identified! These other sites should be used for the production of biogas too and they should be identified in a location as close as possible to those areas that have the largest number of animal farms in order to minimise the movement of animal waste. Knowing that a number of these farms are sited very close to each other should make matters easier for our waste management planners.

Bad planning brings out another sore point, which was not discussed in the pre-budget document: namely the management of our water resources. Groundwater (a ‘free’ source of freshwater) still accounts for 40 per cent of our potable water supply. Groundwater accounts for the greater part of the water used by agriculture, the construction sector, landscaping activities and various other industrial and commercial concerns, including some hotels which are supplied by bowsers. However, as a result of over-extraction, the quality of the water in the aquifer is becoming saltier by the day and will become useless within our lifetime.

Yet, illegal extraction of ground water continues unabated and the authority responsible for the sustainable use of this precious resource (the Malta Resources Authority) persists in not taking any concrete action. The recent increase in the surcharge on mains water will inevitably result in a rush to drill more boreholes and extract more groundwater, with the consequence that our aquifer will die an earlier death.

Within this context, the construction of wastewater treatment plants treating urban wastewater and discharging it directly into the sea assumes an alarming relevance. A country whose natural water resources are not sufficient for its use ought to manage its water resources in a much better way. It certainly ought not to permit the illegal extraction of water or the discharge of treated water into the sea. The siting of the wastewater treatment plants in Malta and Gozo is such that discharging treated water into the sea is a foregone conclusion. This decision, undoubtedly arrived at based on the original siting of the sewage outfalls, ignores the possibilities to reuse the treated water, either as a second-class source or (with additional treatment) as potable water. Other developed countries, notably Singapore, produce an ever-increasing percentage of their potable water in this manner. This issue is ignored in the pre-budget report.

All this could easily have been prevented with a proper water management planning strategy, which, instead of large-scale plants for wastewater treatment, could have identified a number of smaller sites along the sewer route on the islands for the construction of small packaged wastewater treatment plants. These would have provided ample treated effluent where and when required for agricultural use, landscaping and other uses not requiring water of potable quality – at little or no distribution costs. The widespread availability of this water would have substituted the need to extract groundwater and facilitated the required enforcement action on its illegal extraction.

The total costs would have been substantially less. By costs I do not just mean economic ones but also the ecological cost of losing a strategic resource (the aquifer), which loss will have to be borne by future generations.

As indicated in the public hearings carried out by Minister Tonio Fenech, the pre-budget document deals with the sustainability of localities, rightly linking this issue to the proposed reform of local councils. It refers to the need for localities to draw up a Local Sustainable Development Strategy. In environmental management, we normally consider this within the Local Agenda 21 process currently espoused by thousands of localities around the globe: think global act local.

The sustainable localities proposal is undoubtedly well intentioned, and if adequately planned and applied can lead to positive results. The difficulty that will arise is that of economies of scale. Our localities vary substantially in size: from the largest – Birkirkara, to the smallest – San Lawrenz in Gozo. I believe that the best manner to apply Local Agenda 21 in Malta would be on a regional level. It would entail the setting up an additional level of local government that could be made up of all the local councils in the region. One possibility for the identification of regions would be to follow the boundaries of the seven local plans. These regions could be the channel for drawing up a Local Agenda 21 in conformity with national policy and strategies, which allow ample room for adequate planning. The proposed Conference on Local Sustainable Development would be a good start.

The basic point at issue in all deliberations is to view the economy as a tool at the service of the eco-system rather than as master of all. Adopting sustainable development as a policy instrument is no easy task. It entails taking a holistic view of public administration and its consequences. It signifies that national policy and administrative action need to have a continuous long-term view.

Economic policy generally takes on board social policy. It now needs to ensure that it is subservient to the eco-system because at the end of the day the eco-system is the source of our being. It is only at this point that we will be in a position to settle our country’s accumulated environmental deficit!