The farce continues

gas at Marsaxlokk

Tomorrow, the Environment and Resources Authority will meet in public to consider the approval of an amendment to the IPPC permit regulating the operations of the power station at Delimara. It is an amendment to an already existing permit as a result of which a definite decision concerning the switch-over to gas-operated turbines will be taken.

The Environment and Resources Authority has been in operation for some months – since February – but this will be the first time it will be possible to observe it in action in a public session.

Last Thursday the Authority, through its secretary to the ‘Environmental permitting-Development Control Commission’ informed those who had taken part in the public consultation that a 71-page document containing responses to feedback received during the public consultation was available online at http://era.org.mt/en/Pages/IPPC-Public-Consultation.aspx.

We are now accustomed to having important information being made available (if at all) at a very late hour and at a time when most people interested in the Delimara public debate are preparing for a well-earned Christmas break.

The document made available last Thursday afternoon, just one working day before the public hearing, is the only document containing the views of the Authority on the subject, even though these views are mostly expressed telegraphically. At the time of writing, I am not aware of the recommendation which the Environment Directorate has submitted for the consideration of the Board of the Authority, that is whether and to what extent it is satisfied with the documentation submitted for its consideration.

The said documentation runs to over 15,000 pages spread into around 300 files of different sizes which could not be adequately examined during the short time available for public consultation, even though this was slightly extended.

Public opinion is not worried about the change to LNG in the operation of the power station. It is, however, still worried about issues of safety. These worries are compounded by the fact that a document prepared by the Civil Protection Department regarding the External Emergency Plan for the Delimara Power Station has been partly excluded from the public consultation exercise. As already stated in a previous article (TMIS, 27 November: A Secret Plan for Delimara) this runs counter to the provisions of the Seveso III Directive of the European Union which has been transposed into the Maltese Statute book through the Control of Major Hazard Regulations of 2015 which provides that: “The Civil Protection Department shall ensure that the public concerned is given early opportunity to give its opinion on external emergency plans when they are being established or substantially modified.”

The Civil Protection Department is failing in its duty to consult. However, by failing to act on the Civil Protection Department’s dereliction of duty, the Environment and Resources Authority, as the ultimate regulator on the matter, is transforming this failure into an abusive exercise of its authority.

How is it possible to voice your opinion on a document that is still shrouded in secrecy?

This is only possible if what should be public consultation is transformed into a farce. The farce continues tomorrow – Monday.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 18 December 2016

Political calculation or environmental principle?

calculator

 

Joseph Muscat’s declaration that the Freeport Terminal will not be permitted to expand in Birżebbuġa’s direction due to its impacts on the residential community will inevitably have an effect on the Planning Authority. Viewed in the context of the recent Planning Authority decision not to approve the proposed Ħondoq ir-Rummien development, a pattern seems to be developing.

Given the fact that these two decisions are closely associated with localities that politically support the Labour Party it is still not clear whether this newly discovered sensitivity to restrict development which negatively impacts residential communities is based on political calculation or on environmental principle. This consideration is inevitable, in particular due to the report in this newspaper on 22 June that the Prime Minister had stated, in a discussion with environmental NGO Flimkien għall-Ambjent Aħjar, that he does not care about impact assessments, as residents get used to everything. As far as I am aware, the Office of the Prime Minister never corrected this report.

The Freeport Terminal debate clearly indicates that Birżebbuġa residents are determined to deliver a different message: they have had enough. During the last seven years there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between Birżebbuġa Local Council, MEPA and the Freeport Terminal Management. This has led to a number of improvements, the most important of which was the setting up of a tripartite Environmental Monitoring Committee that has served to build some bridges and to explore solutions to existing problems caused by the operation of the Freeport Terminal.

There was a time, around two years ago, when pressure was put on Birżebbuġa Local Council to drop its objections to specific operations. I distinctly remember representatives from the oil-rig repair industry  trying to convince the Council of the “benefits” that an oil-rig industry based at the Freeport Terminal could generate.

When these representatives realised that no one was convinced, an amendment to the environmental permit was forced through the then MEPA Board. To their credit, only three of the then board members understood the real issues and voted against the proposal: the two MPs (Joe Sammut and Ryan Callus) and the environmental NGO representative Alex Vella of the Ramblers Association.

The amended environmental permit would have permitted minor repairs to ships and oil-rigs berthed at the Freeport Terminal. However, after the MEPA Board meeting all hell broke loose, leading Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to disassociate himself from its decision and publicly align himself with the minority on the board opposing the changes. He then stated that he was in agreement with “his representative”, Labour MP Joe Sammut.

While the Freeport Terminal, faced with the reaction of residents, eventually relinquished the newly-acquired permit, the internal debate within the Labour Party continued, leading to the recent statement by Joseph Muscat that he is not in agreement with an expansion of the Freeport Terminal operations that would have a negative impact on the Birżebbuġa community.

Irrespective of whether it is a matter of principle or a political calculation which has led the Prime Minister to make such a statement, I submit that this is still a significant turning point that has been achieved as a direct result of Birżebbuġa Local Council’s persistent lobbying. It contrasts with the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition, who looks forward to an increase in the operations of the Freeport Terminal, without batting an eyelid over the resulting, continuously increasing, impact on the residential community.

The Prime Minister’s statement, while being a positive first step, is certainly not enough. It needs to be translated into policy as an integral part of the revised Local Plans currently under consideration. It is also important that the Prime Minister’s newly identified sensitivities are exported to other areas in Malta and Gozo. It is essential that, in a small country such as ours, third party rights opposing “development” are reinforced.

The issue at stake is far larger than Birżebbbuġa or the Freeport Terminal. It is a tug-of-war between those supporting “development” at all costs and our residential communities. The government must, through planning policy, be supportive of all our residential communities without exception.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 31st July 2016