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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What it takes to Green Cinderella

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published on Saturday March 20, 2010

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Malta’s environmental policy has to date been EU driven for the simple reason that the political establishment in Malta has resisted its development. Dumping environmental responsibilities with land use planning has, in my view, been an integral part of this strategy.

Notwithstanding its past performance, the government’s declaration that it will now embark on consultations leading to the formulation of an environmental policy, which is locally driven, is welcome news. Only time will tell whether this is another exercise in green-washing.

The government’s commitment to safeguard the environment is not to be gauged through its declarations but through its actions or lack of them. Its lack of environmental credentials has been manifested many times. The latest being by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco who, when introducing the Environment and Development Planning Bill in Parliament, stated that the environment will “no longer be the Cinderella of development”.

This has not come about accidentally. It was a deliberate exercise as a result of which the expertise, which the former Department for the Environment was slowly accumulating, was wiped out. Those who plotted the merger needed to ensure that environmental decisions were subject to development considerations at all times.

Cabinet responsibility for the environment made its first appearance immediately after the 1972 Stockholm Human Environment Conference. In 1976, Malta had a Minister for Health and the Environment. His environmental remit focused on landfills. During his watch, the Luqa and Wied Fulija landfills were closed and a new landfill at Magħtab was opened!

The first real minister for the environment in Malta was Daniel Micallef. He was appointed in 1986 during Labour’s last months in government by then Prime Minster Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was seeking to counterbalance the widespread corruption in the Lorry Sant-led Ministry of Works. This corruption was subsequently documented.

Between 1986 and 2002 much was achieved. It would suffice to state that when, in 2002, the Department for the Environment was disbanded it had more credibility and was much more effective than Mepa’s Environment Directorate is today.

A local company that bottles water and soft drinks was recently awarded the 2009 Environment Award for Industry by the Cleaner Technology Centre. The company had relocated to a new site, upgrading its facilities to function eco-efficiently. But it still makes use of substantial amounts of water extracted from the water table through boreholes and sells this as bottled water and soft drinks. Extraction is to the tune of 51 million litres annually. The director of the Cleaner Technology Centre, when prodded in other sections of the press, admitted that the award adjudicating board was not aware that the company extracts ground water through boreholes. Seen within the context of Malta’s depleted water table this award is environmentally blasphemous.

Some persons entrusted with environmental matters have a proven capability of justifying the unjustifiable. This partly explains why Malta’s environmental administration is in shambles.

Within this context I believe there are more pressing issues than the drafting of an environmental policy. Applying all the EU environmental acquis would be a good first step.

A point I have harped on in these pages (1) (2) is the non-implementation of the waste from electric and electronic equipment directive. This directive applies “the producer responsibility principle” as a result of which producers and their representatives have to take back electrical and electronic waste from consumers. Most importers are aware that they are in breach of the directive’s provisions. They feel, however, that they cannot honour their obligations unless the government reviews the eco-contribution regime as, otherwise, they will end up paying twice for the same responsibilities: a payment through eco-contribution and another one through financing the take-back.

There is also a need for legislation regulating noise pollution. EU legislation on the matter (the environmental noise directive) deals only with traffic/transport-generated noise and substantial parts of it are not applicable to Malta. As the EU does not deal sufficiently with the matter, Malta has to date considered it safe to conveniently ignore the need for noise pollution legislation completely. In a densely populated community this issue is of the utmost importance, yet, successive governments have not been bothered.

These examples (water, waste, noise) just scratch the surface of the deficiencies of the environmental set-up, an area which has been continuously muzzled, sidelined, ignored and deprived of resources. It is this attitude which has to change.

The environmental policy this country needs is one which enables its government to be clear and consistent. Declarations on their own are not sufficient as commitment has been continuously absent. If the government really wants to translate its declarations into action it will take much more than an environmental policy to Green Cinderella.

The Value of Silence

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published on February 7, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo

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Sound can be pleasant or annoying depending on personal preferences and moods. It becomes noise, acoustic pollution or maybe even sonic violence when it breaches the individual threshold of tolerance.

Through the Environmental Management Construction Site Regulations of 2007, an attempt has been made to regulate sound emanating from construction sites. While this was a step in the right direction it is to be pointed out that these regulations have not yet been rigorously applied.

The European Union, through Directive 2002/49 known as the Environmental Noise Directive (END), dealing with the “assessment and management of environmental noise”, went one step further: It established common criteria to assess and manage noise throughout the EU. It seeks to establish common criteria relative to the assessment of noise generated by main airports, roads carrying more than six million vehicle passages per year, urban areas having a population exceeding 250,000 and railways. The criteria relative to roads are clearly applicable; those relative to major airports would be applicable when flight movements at Malta International Airport exceed 50,000 per annum (29,972 flight movements in 2008), while the other criteria are obviously inapplicable.

The aim of END is three-fold. Firstly, to define a common approach in noise mapping by EU member states and, thus, to determine exposure to environmental noise through common methods of assessment. Secondly, to ensure that information on environmental noise and its effects is made available to the public. Thirdly, subject to public consultation, to adopt action plans on the basis of the noise-mapping results. These aims had to be attained by specific dates, all of which have now expired.

At AD’s request last week, the Meusac core group was informed by the director of Environment Protection, that Mepa does not have the know-how to implement END and that it intends to issue a tender to farm out the technical expertise required. This decision could easily have been taken more than four years ago such that Malta would now be in the phase of implementation. It seems, however, that this is still far away as the tender is yet to be issued!

When END is finally implemented, various noise sources would still be unregulated. Other jurisdictions have tackled such noise sources as the leisure industry, industrial activity that lies close to residential areas as well as the impacts of noise sources within residential areas themselves.

A court report in The Times some days ago highlighted the impacts which noise, generated by air-conditioning units used by a bank in Sliema, has on overlying residences. This particular case highlighted the friction generated within areas wherein commercial and residential use intermingles. Similar friction exists in residential areas due to the fixing of air-conditioning units servicing ground-floor tenements in such a manner as to be a nuisance to residents of overlying tenements. There is no easy solution to this problem if the point of departure is not the seeking of good neighbourly relations.

In September 2008, the Irish government, faced with similar problems, published a Noise Issues Consultation Paper. This was an initiative taken by John Gormley, Green minister for the Environment in the Irish coalition government. Through specific legislation it was proposed to regulate infrastructural, planning, construction, commercial, industrial, recreational and anti-social noise.

Infrastructural noise would be that related to road traffic as well as low-flying aircraft. Regulating noise from planning/construction does not only concern construction sites but also the noise resulting from the use of a property (say, air conditioners). The regulation of noise emanating from commercial and industrial establishments would address the use of equipment in these establishments, noise resulting from clients of bars, nightclubs and discos both when the premises is in use as well as when exiting.

Noise relative to industrial installations, especially those situated close to residential areas, is another area needing to be tackled! Recreational noise would address for example the sonic impact of jet-skis and festa fireworks while anti-social noise would include continual and persistent sounding of alarms (car and house/shop alarms), noise from neighbourhood parties, animal noise in residential areas, in particular the persistent barking of dogs, as well as noise generated by large groups loitering in residential areas late into the night.

Not all of these issues are regulated in Malta. Enabling powers are spread in various laws, which generally authorise the Commissioner of Police to take the necessary action. The police, however, at times are powerless when they consider that a sonic nuisance brought to their attention could not fall within their competence, the issue of air conditioners being a case in point.

This points to the need to consolidate and update Maltese legislation regulating acoustic pollution such that an immediate administrative remedy is available to ensure that the value of silence, where appropriate, is appreciated by all.