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

Greening: what really matters

A public consultation is currently under way relative to green roofs and green walls. A 42-page document entitled Green Paper on Greening Buildings in Malta: Initiatives for Green Walls and Roofs for Residential, Commercial, and Industrial Buildings was published, explaining the objectives to be attained. The encouragement of green roofs and green walls aims to contribute towards reaching the zero-carbon objective in 2050. 

I have no issue with greening walls and roofs where this is appropriate. However, notwithstanding all the good intentions, there is a risk that the predominant green produced is more plastic! Maybe they could, instead, start by respecting our existing green walls made up of the substantial number of trees being continuously uprooted by the Ministry for Transport!

My issue is with the artificiality of “environment policy” in Malta which concentrates and over-inflates on minor issues and then turns a blind eye to the issues that really matter.

Among the most pressing issues is that of the urgent need of greening transport policy: that is the need to ensure that mobility issues in the Maltese islands are addressed in a sustainable manner.

Two specific policy issues currently in hand need complete reversal.

The current massive investment of resources in roadbuilding is a blatant misuse of public funds as they place car-usage as the primary objective to be facilitated. It is pertinent to point, once more, towards the National Transport Master Plan 2025 which in crystal-clear language explains what’s wrong with transport policy in the Maltese islands.

The following extract is self-explanatory: “Improve integrated and long-term strategic planning and design: This objective has been defined since historically, it can be seen from experience that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has generally been more short-term (4-5 years) in nature. The lack of importance given to long-term planning means that a long-term integrated plan based on solid analysis with clear objectives and targets is lacking. This has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.

There is a strong reluctance for Maltese society to change but this is in contrast with the need for communal actions to address the traffic problems existing now and in the future. This results in the Maltese traveller expecting that everyone else will change their travel habits so that they can continue to drive their car.” (page 88 of National Transport Master Plan 2025)

Greening transport policy in Malta essentially means addressing and reducing car ownership in order to substantially reduce private vehicles from our roads. In a small country such as ours, sustainable mobility cannot be achieved through private vehicles but through alternative transport. Everywhere is within reach. In fact, the Transport Master Plan emphasises that 50 per cent of the trips we make with private cars are for distances taking less than 15 minutes, meaning that such trips are local or regional in nature.

We need more public transport initiatives and less private cars on our roads instead of further extensions to the public road network through massive road infrastructural projects.

The proposed Gozo tunnel is likewise another unnecessary project. It is a tunnel which facilitates the use of private cars. The feasibility of the said project is tied to a substantial increase in car movements between the islands as it is the payment of fees levied on cars making the trip that pays for the tunnel project. The documentation projects an increase from 3000 to 9000 daily movements of vehicles, a threefold increase. Green walls and green roofs do not cancel out such irresponsible action.

Greening roofs and walls do not involve rocket science. There is no issue with the implementation of a policy encouraging green roofs and green walls although it would be quite useful if plastic use in such walls and roofs is reduced! But transport policy is contentious as it involves unpopular but essential decisions. Restraining the use of private vehicles is, of paramount importance. Coupled with more public transport improvements it will reduce cars on the roads, improve the quality of our air and reduce household expenses. Avoiding this decision will only make matters worse.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 14 February 2021

Incinerating trust, fairness and common sense

A public consultation is currently under way until the 21 October relative to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which examines Wasteserve’s proposal:  the development of a Waste to Energy Facility, to operate in conjunction with other management operations within the so-called Magħtab Environmental Complex.

It is a duty of Wasteserve defined in terms of the EU environmental acquis applicable within Maltese territory to examine the environmental impacts of its proposal within the framework of agreed terms of reference approved by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA). The detailed reports together with the supporting technical information are then subject to public consultation.

The EIA in respect of the Magħtab incinerator is commissioned by Wasteserve, however it serves to inform the whole decision-taking process. Contrary to the disclaimer by the EIA’s coordinator in the first few pages, the reports forming the EIA are not “for the exclusive use of Wasteserve Malta Limited”. I fail to understand how ERA has accepted to include this disclaimer when it is clear, even from a cursory look at the Environment Impact Assessment Regulations that the EIA is an important document which informs the environmental and land use planning decision-taking process. It is in particular used to inform the public and on its basis a public hearing is organised to take feedback from all interested parties.

The EIA is certainly a public document in respect of which its coordinator has to shoulder responsibility as to its accuracy and reasonableness. Having a disclaimer as that indicated above is certainly not acceptable. ERA should pull up its socks and ensure the deletion of the said disclaimer forthwith.

A cursory look at the Magħtab incinerator EIA, including the technical studies attached reveals the names of a number of experts who have given their input in the formulation of the studies required which studies are then distilled in an appropriate assessment report.

One of these experts is a certain professor Alan Deidun who concurrently with participating in this specific EIA is also a member of the ERA Board, the environmental regulator. He sits on the ERA Board after being nominated by the environmental NGOs as established by legislation.

Professor Alan Deidun is conveniently with one foot on each side of the fence: forming part of the regulatory structure and simultaneously advising the developer, in this case Wasteserve Malta Limited, a government entity. In my book this is the type of conflict of interest which instils a deep sense of distrust of the regulatory authorities. Alan Deidun is running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

Can we ever trust “regulators” who, whenever they feel like it, offer their services to those they “regulate”?

Interestingly, one of the documents available for public scrutiny contains a declaration by twenty-one expert contributors to the EIA, each of whom declares that s/he has no conflict of interest: the conflict however being narrowly defined in terms of an interest in the development itself.  The EIA Regulations do not limit “conflict of interest” to an interest in the development but speak of “no conflict of interests”. No wonder even Professor Alan  Deidun signed this declaration!

Regulation 17 of the EIA Regulations of 2017 lays down that those carrying out the EIA must be “professional, independent and impartial”. How can the regulator be “professional, independent and impartial” when he starts advising those s/he regulates?

It is about time that the environmental NGOs recall Professor Alan Deidun from his role as a member of the ERA Board representing them, as such behaviour is unacceptable in this day and age.

It may be pertinent to point out that very recently, a development permit, in respect of the development of Manoel Island, was withdrawn by the Environment and Planning Tribunal due to the fact that one of the contributors to the EIA had a conflict of interest.

It is about time that regulators understand that their acceptance to sit on decision-taking structures puts limits on their permissible professional activities. Until such time that this basic point is acted upon our authorities cannot be fully trusted. Their behaviour is incinerating trust, fairness and common sense.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 October 2020

Wiċċ b’ieħor

Safe City Malta, li tifforma parti minn Projects Malta li tippjana proġetti ta’ tisħib mas-settur privat, qed tippjana li jkunu installati cameras CCTV b’kapacità li jidentifikaw l-uċuħ ta’ dawk li x-xbieha tagħhom tinqabad fuq is-CCTV. Qed jingħad li b’dan il-mod ikun possibli li jkunu identifikati persuni li jkunu involuti f’attività kriminali.

Dwar dan ukoll hemm referenza fid-diskors tal-Baġit fejn kien tħabbar li : “Fl-aħħar xhur kienet għaddejja ħidma biex ġie installat l-apparat neċessarju f’data centre għal użu fuq bażi sperimentali u fejn l-apparat ta’ sorveljanza viżiva qiegħed jintuża biss f’ambjent mhux pubbliku u f’rispett sħiħ tal-liġijiet tal-privatezza billi jiġu wżati prattii etiċi internazzjonali.” Ġejna infurmati li Paceville u l-Marsa, probabbilment li jkunu minn tal-ewwel li jospitaw dan l-esperiment. Dan kellu jsir wara li sseħħ konsultazzjoni pubblika.

Imma s’issa ma seħħet l-ebda konsultazzjoni. Nafu iżda li x’aktarx li diġa ġie iffirmat memorandum of understanding mal-Huawei, kumpanija Ċiniża li hi meqjusa ġgant globali fil-qasam tat-teknoloġija tal-komunikazzjoni. Fix-xhur li ġejjin probabbilment tibda l-implementazzjoni. Dan ifisser li jekk il-konsultazzjoni sseħħ ma jkollha tifsira ta’ xejn, għax id-deċiżjonijiet jidher li lesti.

Iktar kmieni din is-sena, Huawei, ftehmu mad-Dipartiment tas-Sigurtà Pubblika tar-reġjun ta’ Xinjiang fil-punent taċ-Ċina. Intefqu flejjes kbar f’dan ir-reġjun biex f’Xinjiang ikun possibli li tkun ippruvata t-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ, osservazzjoni diġitali u l-applikazzjoni tal-intelliġenza artifijali għal xogħol il-pulizija. Huawei ser jipprovdu lill-pulizija tar-reġjun l-appoġġ tekniku biex ikunu żviluppati l-kapaċitajiet tan-nies involuti u b’hekk tissodisfa l-ħtiġijiet diġitali tal-industrija tas-sigurtà pubblika, ġie rappurtat li qal Fan Lixin, il-Viċi Direttur tad-Dipartiment tas-Sigurtà Pubblika ta’ Xinjiang . Din il-kooperazzjoni kienet meqjusa li tista’ tassigura “l-istabilità soċjali u s-sigurtà fit-tul ta’ Xinjiang”.

Dan jikkuntrasta ma dak li nsibu fir-rapport annwali ta’ Huawei għas-sena 2017 li jwassal messaġġ ċar: Huawei jimpurtha ħafna mill-privatezza. Jgħidulna li fl-2017 “Huawei continued to strengthen compliance in multiple business domains, including trade, cyber security, and data and privacy protection.” Jgħidulna ukoll dwar “il-ħsiebijiet ta’ Huawei dwar is-sigurtà elettronika – li tissaħħaħ bl-innovazzjoni, bil-kollaborazzjoni u bl-iżvilupp tal-fiduċja fid-dinja diġitali.” Probabbilment li dan il-kuntrast jirriżulta minħabba li l-messaġġi huma indirizzati lejn udjenzi differenti!

Iktar viċin tagħna, l-pulizija fir-Renju Unit ilhom ftit taż-żmien jesperimentaw bit-teknoliġija li tirrikonoxxi l-uċuħ. Big Brother Watch, grupp li jikkampanja favur id-drittijiet ċivili fir-Renju Unit jirrapporta li s-sistemi użati jagħtu riżultati żbaljati 9 darbiet minn 10. F’rapport twil 56 paġna, li kien ippubblikat f’Mejju li għadda bit-titlu Face Off. The lawless growth of facial recognition in UK policing. kien konkluż li 95 fil-mija tal-uċuħ identifikati mis-sistema kienu żbaljati: kienu wiċċ b’ieħor. Identifikaw uċuħ ta’persuni innoċenti. Dan apparti li r-ritratti biometriċi ta’ persuni innoċenti inżammu u nħażnu mill-Pulizija b’mod sfaċċat kontra kull regola bażika tal-ħarsien tad-data.

L-użu tat-teknoloġija biex jingħarfu l-uċuħ tan-nies bħala għodda ta’ l-ordni pubbliku hi għall-qalb il-pulizija, li fuq il-karta jistgħu jgħidu li qed isaħħu l-kapaċitajiet tagħhom fil-ġlieda kontra l-kriminalità. Għall-bqija imma, dan hu ħmar-il lejl u dan billi jekk it-teknoloġija ma tintużax fil-parametri tar-regoli bażiċi tal-ħarsien tad-data tkun invażjoni tal-privatezza li kull wieħed u waħda minna aħna intitolati għaliha.

Il-Kummissarju għall-Ħarsien tad-Data u l-Informazzjoni Saviour Cachia, f’intervista mal-Orizzont iktar kmieni din il-ġimgha qal li kien jistenna li l-awtoritajiet jagħmlu analiżi addattata qabel ma jagħmlu użu ta’ teknoloġija li kapaċi tagħraf l-uċuħ. Is-Sur Cachia emfasizza li għad baqa’ ħafna xi jsir qabel ma nistgħu nikkunsidraw meta u kif it-teknoloġija għall-għarfien tal-uċuħ tista’ tuntuża fil-qasam tas-sigurtà. Ħadd ma jaf jekk l-analiżi li ġibed l-attenzjoni għaliha s-Sur Cachia saritx, jew jekk tal-inqas inbdietx. Din it-teknoloġija tinvadi l-privatezza ta’ kulħadd b’sogru li tikser d-drittijiet fundamentali tagħna lkoll.

Meta jkun eżaminat dettaljatament kif l-użu ta’ din it-teknoloġija jista’ jkollha effett fuq l-attività kriminali inkunu f’posizzjoni aħjar biex niddeċiedu x’sens jagħmel li nissagrifikaw il-privatezza tagħna, anke jekk b’mod limitat, biex l-istat jissorvelja u sa ċertu punt jikkontrolla parti minn ħajjitna. L-esperjenza tal-użu ta’ din it-teknoloġija fir-Renju Unit għandha twassalna għall-konklużjoni waħda: għandna nsemmgħu leħinna u nieqfu lill-istat li jrid jissorvelja ħajjitna.

Il-Gvern għandu l-obbligu li jibda konsultazzjoni pubblika immedjatament u jpoġġi l-pjanijiet tiegħu taħt il-lenti tal-iskrutinjun pubbliku.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 11 ta’ Novembru 2018

Standing up to the surveillance state

Safe City Malta, part of the government’s public-private partnership arm Projects Malta, is planning to deploy high-definition CCTV cameras with facial recognition software. It is claimed that these cameras can identify those involved in criminal activity. The subject was referred to in the budget speech in which it was announced that, after adequate public consultation, such technology will be introduced in a number of areas. Paceville and Marsa are the prime candidates for this technology.

So far, no consultation has taken place, but a Memorandum of Understanding has apparently already been signed with the Chinese global communication technology giant Huawei, and implementation could begin in the coming months. So, the consultation, if carried out, will serve no purpose because the decisions have already been made.

Earlier this year, Huawei entered into an agreement with the Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang, China’s largest province. The Chinese authorities have spent heavily on making Xinjiang a testing ground for the use of facial recognition, digital monitoring and artificial intelligence in policing.

Huawei will provide the region’s police with technical support, help build up human technical expertise and “meet the digitization requirements of the public security industry”. A local government website paraphrased Fan Lixin, Xinjiang Public Security Bureau’s deputy director, as saying that such co-operation would guarantee “Xinjiang’s social stability and long-term security.”

The above quote is in contrast to the contents of Huawei’s Annual Report for 2017,  which drives home the message that Huawei cares a great deal about privacy. We are told that, in 2017, “Huawei continued to strengthen compliance in multiple business domains, including trade, cyber security and data and privacy protection.” We are furthermore informed of the “Huawei’s cyber security concepts – building security through innovation, enhancing security through collaboration and jointly building trust in a digital world.”

The contrast is probably the result of the messages being directed towards different audiences!

Closer to home, police in the United Kingdom have been experimenting with facial recognition technology for some time. Big Brother Watch, a UK based civil liberties group, reports that the systems in use are on average, incorrect nine times out of ten. A 56-page report published in May, entitled Face Off: the lawless growth of facial recognition in UK policing. concluded that “a staggering 95 per cent of matches wrongly identified innocent people”. To add insult to injury, innocent people’s biometric photographs were taken and stored without their knowledge in blatant disregard of basic data protection norms.

The use of facial recognition technology as a law and order tool has been welcomed by the police, as it can theoretically enhance their capabilities in the fight against crime. The proposal, however, is a nightmare for the rest of us because if it is not used within the parameters of data protection legislation, facial recognition technology will be an unacceptable invasion of the basic norms of privacy to which each one of us is entitled to.

The Commissioner for Information and Data Protection Saviour Cachia, interviewed by the GWU’s daily newspaper earlier this week emphasised that he expected that a proper assessment to be carried out by the authorities prior to the use of facial recognition technology. Mr Cachia emphasised the fact much more needs to be done before considering when and how facial recognition technology is used for security purposes. No one is aware whether or not the required assessment indicated by Mr Cachia has, in fact, been done or even if work on it has commenced.

This technology invades our privacy in an indiscriminate manner and our fundamental human rights are at risk of being breeched left , right and centre.

Examining in detail the impacts that this technology could have on criminal activity would help us determine whether it makes any sense to sacrifice our privacy (even minutely) in order for the surveillance state to take over and control segments of our life. If the UK experience is anything to go by, there is one logical conclusion: we should stand up to the surveillance state.

The Government should initiate a public consultation at the earliest opportunity and lay all its cards on the table for public scrutiny.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 November 2018

L-isfiduċja fil-MEPA tkompli tissaħħaħ

Howard Gardens excavation 101215

 

Barra mill-Imdina, f’Howard Gardens, dal-għodu flimkien ma’ Astrid Vella mill-FAA u l-ambjentalista Alfred Baldacchino indirizzajt konferenza stampa dwar xogħol li qed isir mill-Kunsill Lokali tal-Imdina.

Ix-xogħol jinvolvi tħaffir u tneħħija ta’ ħamrija jidher li ġie approvat mill-MEPA bil-proċedura tad-DNO. Jiġifieri mingħajr il-ħtieġa ta’ applikazzjoni. In-notifika ġġib in-numru DN 2085/15 u jidher li ħarġet nhar l-4 ta’ Novembru li għadda.

Dan imur kontra dak li jgħidu ir-regolamenti għax dan it-tip ta’ approvazzjoni l-MEPA ma tistax taghtiha f’żoni skedati jew protetti.

Normalment dan it-tip ta’ permessi jsiru b’applikazjoni li dwarha jkun hemm perjodu ta’ konsultazzjoni. Fl-aħħar, jekk u meta tapprova, l-MEPA taħtar lil xi ħadd biex jissorvejla u dan minħabba li mhux ħaga rari li meta jsir it-tħaffir fir-Rabat/Mdina li jinstabu fdalijiet storiċi.

Dan kollu ma sarx.

Biex tkompli tgħaqqadha, għal ħin twil ma kien hemm l-ebda informazzjoni elettronika fuq il-website tal-MEPA. Kien biss reċentment li din l-informazzjoni tfaċċat.

Dawn huma affarijiet li jkomplu jsaħħu l-isfiduċja fil-MEPA.