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

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