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

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Micro-managing environment policy

Issues of environmental nuisance have so far not featured in the debate on the National Environment Policy. Odours would top the list of such nuisances. Consider industrial kitchens. The issue may arise in residential areas that have their ground floor used as a restaurant or a snack bar. This mixed use causes problems as can be attested to by residents in areas such as Buġibba, Qawra, Paceville and Marsascala. Odours are rarely adequately taken care of.

The issue also arises in the case of confectioners when manufacturing is carried out in a residential area. In terms of planning policy, it is possible to site such an activity within a residential area but it must be compatible with its surroundings. When the activity gets too large it is time to move out of the residential area to an alternative site where it belongs: an industrial estate.

A considerable amount of environmental nuisance is caused by noise.

Placing air-conditioning units in common shafts or backyards in residential properties close to someone’s bedroom is, without doubt, the cause of an environmental nuisance. This can cause problems, particularly in the case of maisonettes or flats if proper care is not exercised in identifying the right place for fixing the unit.

Retail outlets in residential areas, in particular those selling frozen foodstuffs and making use of industrial freezers, can also be the cause of nuisance if the noise-generating unit is not properly installed relative to overlying and/or adjacent residential units.

Chimneys in residential areas can cause environmental nuisance. Current policy establishes that the flue must be at least three metres higher than adjacent buildings. For normal domestic use this is generally sufficient to ensure dispersal of smoke emitted. Notwithstanding, problems sometimes occur due to changes in the height of buildings in the vicinity of existing flues, which, all of a sudden, render problematic a flue that has functioned without causing nuisance for ages!

Complaints are also encountered relative to the emissions of bakeries in residential areas. In most cases this state of affairs crops up due to the fact that some of these bakeries are housed in old structures in residential areas that have developed. The building height of part of the residential areas would be such that a number of residential units are normally situated at a height above the flue level.

This means that emissions go straight through the windows of residences. This is certainly not a pleasant experience.

Dust resulting from construction activity is another cause of environmental nuisance. This is an issue which the Construction Management Regulations of 2007 attempted to regulate but, so far, have failed to tackle adequately. The solution (reducing substantially construction dust) can only be attained gradually and is primarily dependent on improved work methods on sites of work and more attention to health and safety issues in the construction industry.

The problem also arises because the construction industry is primarily made up of non-unionised labour. A large proportion are small firms spread over a number of sites. Traditionally, these small units within the industry have not given sufficient importance to health and safety issues. On the other hand, most of the large construction firms are equipped to tackle issues of nuisance on site on both the environment front as well as on the health and safety front. Their complaint is that these measures increase their costs while others in the industry ignore their responsibilities.

Factories making/distributing products used in the building industry are also contributing to the dust problem as is evidenced by the Lija saga, which made the national headlines when Mabel Strickland instituted the first legal action on the matter over 40 years ago. The solution is simple yet expensive: Move all activities indoors in a controlled environment. The expense the industry has not incurred to date has been borne by the community through medication for various ailments: asthma and other allergies topping the list.

Some may consider issues of environmental nuisance as being minor in terms of policy. They are, however, what the environment means to the man in the street. At times impacts resulting from environmental nuisance are the only direct knowledge which Joe Bloggs has of environmental impacts. This requires micro-management of environment policy and is no less important than addressing issues of biodiversity, light pollution or corporate social responsibility.

I hasten to add that ensuring an appropriate micro-management of the environment may sensitise the community to move on and be interested in other important environmental impacts.

Think global but act local. Local communities through local councils can play an important role in identifying environmental nuisances and assisting in their solution. This would develop environmental policy at the grassroots and can help gradually in its acceptance on a much wider scale than at present.

published in the Times of Malta, Saturday October 2, 2010