Mental Gymnastics at MEPA

Over the past two years, three special areas of conservation were in the news: Mistra (Spin Valley disco), Baħrija Valley and, now, Dwejra. Next in the news will be the White Rocks sports development, bordering Pembroke.

The Director for Environment Protection at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is on record as saying that an SAC should not be “a keep-out zone”. To my knowledge, no one has made such an assertion. It is, however, to be underlined that permissible activities in and around SACs are limited in terms of the EU Habitats Directive.

Decisions of the Environment Protection Directorate relative to SACs need to be adequately motivated. This is unfortunately not always apparent. What is also very clear at this stage is that the Environment Protection Directorate seems to have been kept out of the process leading to the original decision on the use of the Dwejra site, only to be pushed onto the frontline at the eleventh hour when a damage limitation exercise was embarked upon.

The Habitats Directive is very clear. As a rule, it permits activities on and in the vicinity of SACs only if these activities are required for the purpose of managing the site. Other activities may also be permitted but when this is the case they are subject to stringent procedures and conditions.

The Habitats Directive (transposed into Maltese legislation by Legal Notice 311 of 2006) may permit an activity in or in the vicinity of an SAC provided the Environment Protection Directorate determines it is not detrimental to the site either on its own or cumulatively with other activities.

However, in so determining, the Environment Protection Directorate has to carefully consider the proposed activity and correlate it to all the characteristics of the SAC. In particular, it should also consider what is known as the “corridor effect”. That is, whether an activity in or outside an SAC is likely to have an impact on any area of the SAC or another protected area in the vicinity, say a marine conservation area as is the case in Dwejra.

An SAC should be considered as a whole and should not be parcelled into areas where activity is permissible and others where it is not, as Mepa seems to be suggesting. Malta cannot go on with declaring areas to be SACs only to subsequently commence mental gymnastics in order to invent exceptions whenever the need to justify something crops up.

Analysing statements made after the Dwejra saga, it is clear Mepa failed to do the above. By stating the site was “bare rock”, worse still, by stating there is no eco-system to protect (even if this absurd statement was later retracted), Mepa in my view abdicated its responsibilities as the competent authority entrusted by the EU to act on its behalf to manage SACs, which are today part of an EU Natura 2000 network.

At least two parallel investigations are under way. One by the Mepa audit officer, the other by independent experts to scientifically examine and report on any impacts on the site as a result of the permit issued by Mepa.

So far, the applicant (Fire and Blood Productions) and the sub-contractor have been censured for not observing the permit conditions imposed by Mepa. However, no official comment as to whether Mepa overstepped its brief in issuing the Dwejra permit has yet been made. This I submit is the primary pending matter as, in my view, Mepa should never have authorised the placing of sand at Dwejra.

Earlier this year, in an article entitled Land Speculation At White Rocks (July 7) I had written about another SAC, that at Pembroke. The proposal there does not involve the temporary placing of sand but the development of a sports complex in an area which is very close to the Pembroke SAC. In view of conflicting information it is not yet clear how and to what extent this proposal impacts the Pembroke SAC.

After considering the manner in which SACs have been mismanaged by Mepa in Mistra, Baħrija, Dwejra and, now, possibly Pembroke it is legitimate to ask why the government has bothered to declare them as areas worthy of protection.

It is clear so far the government is only interested in paying lip service to such issues and, subsequently, to engage in mental gymnastics to justify anything.

As stated by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco (The Cost Of Decisions That Count, The Times, November 27) one should not use this serious incident to discount the validity of a number of environmental initiatives. However, if the government wants to be taken seriously on environmental issues it must put its house in order. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a priority.

 

Published in The Times of Malta, Saturday December 4, 2010

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The mauling of Dwejra : an environmental crime

 

Some would have formed the opinion that the basic information on the Dwejra debacle is known to all.

Not quite, I would say.

MEPA issued a permit containing The Consent Conditions relative to a number of sites in Malta and Gozo to be used for filming parts of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones”. One of the sites was at Dwejra Gozo.

Two site specific conditions applicable to Dwejra (conditions 23 and 24 of The Consent Conditions) refer to Areas of Ecological Importance and Sites of Scientific Importance. These are terms used by the Structure Plan to classify the protection afforded to areas of conservation (Structure Plan Policies RCO 1, RCO 2 and RCO 3). Given that the Dwejra site is a Special Area of Conservation I searched and noted that in The Consent Conditions there is no reference whatsoever to Special Areas of Conservation rules and policies, regulated in terms of the Habitats Directive of the EU which was transposed into Maltese law through Legal Notice 311 of 2006 (Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations 2006).

This leads to the logical conclusion that the consent issued by MEPA for the use of the Dwejra site to film part of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones” was only processed in terms of land use planning considerations. Environmental considerations are completely absent: they were completely ignored. The Consent Conditions being a written proof  of this.

Planning vs Environment

During the national debate as to whether it made sense to have land use planning and environment protection forming part of the same authority the Gonzi-Demarco duo  always insisted that MEPA dealing with both would lead to having a much better protection of the environment. Coordination, it was said, was the name of the game. In practice we are faced with something else: land use planning considerations are ruling the day and environmental considerations are being continuously sidelined. The Dwejra case being a typical example.

 

The Species Data Form

Dwejra was included as a Nature 2000 site and consequently as a Special Area of Conservation by the European Union at the request of the Maltese Government which also supplied the detailed justification as to why the area should be protected. The scientific reasons justifying the selection of the site as a Special Area of Conservation are available on the Species Data Form which MEPA had submitted to the EU on behalf of the Government of Malta some years back. An electronic copy is available at the EU website.

EU LIFE+  financial support

In 2003, given the importance of the protection afforded to the site the EU through its LIFE+ Fund  supported a conservation project for the area headed by Nature Trust Malta then in partnership with MEPA and WWF Italy. The EU forked out €324,000 of the EU taxpayers’ money.

Permissible Activity

Permissible activity in a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is a very delicate matter. It is regulated primarily by regulations 18 and 19 of Legal Notice 311 of 2006.

Regulation 18 establishes that a permit is necessary for any activity in an SAC. It also determines who needs to be notified.

Regulation 19 goes in detail and establishes the parameters within which MEPA as the Competent Authority can act. When the consent required is not related to the management of the SAC and it is likely to have a significant effect thereon, MEPA or the applicant is to carry out “an appropriate assessment of the implications of the operation or activity on the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives”.

Legitimate question

After having ascertained, through the assessment, that the integrity of the site is not affected MEPA is required to obtain and take into account “the opinion of the general public and representations made”.  This means that the assessment carried out has to be subject to a public consultation.

In view of the above it is legitimate to ask: was an appropriate assessment carried out? And further, when was this appropriate assessment subjected to the scrutiny of the public in order that representations could be made by the public as well as environmental NGOs?

I am not aware as to whether an appropriate assessment was carried out and hence nor am I aware as to its possible conclusions. However if this assessment was carried out I do not recollect that it was subjected to public consultation.  Nor have any of the environmentalists with whom I have discussed the matter any recollection of this public consultation ever taking place.

The public interest

Regulation 19 of Legal Notice 311/2006 further specifies what is to be done if the appropriate assessment results in negative implications for the SAC site. In such cases MEPA as the Competent Authority may only give its consent to the activity “for imperative reasons of overriding public interest …… of a social or economic nature.”  These reasons are defined as relating to human health, public safety, or beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or other reasons which in the opinion of the EU Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest.   

The consent must be accompanied by “compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected.”  The EU Commission is furthermore to be informed of these compensatory measures taken by the Competent Authority.

MEPA’s responsibilities

To date the public has been informed in detail as to how the conditions of the permit which MEPA issued to Fire and Blood Productions were not observed. The public is aware that Fire and Blood Productions has apologised for the damage caused but shifted the blame onto its Gozitan sub-contractor.

This only explains one small part of the saga. No one has yet commented as to how MEPA has contributed to the debacle when it is crystal clear that it is precluded from issuing a permit for the Dwejra site in terms of the provisions of the Habitats Directive.

MEPA as the Competent Authority has the duty to ensure that the provisions of the Habitat’s Directive of the EU are observed to the letter. As explained above, through its actions MEPA has ignored both the letter and the spirit of the Habitats Directive.

This leads me to conclude that the damage caused to the SAC was not caused just by the Gozitan sub-contractor acting on behalf of Fire and Blood Productions. Through its lack of observance of the provisions of Legal Notice 311/2006 MEPA has made it much easier for damage to be inflicted onto the Dwejra SAC. Instead of protecting the environment the now reformed MEPA has facilitated its damage.

This is an environmental crime for which persons having a name and a surname are directly and personally responsible.                        

Accountability

It is time to translate words into action.

I hope that investigations currently in hand will identify the names of those responsible in order that they may be requested to account for both their actions as well as their inaction which have led to the Dwejra SAC mauling.

In a country where the organs of the state are bursting at the seams with lawyers one may sometimes assume that in Malta the rule of law is strictly observed. Such incidents prove that one is grossly mistaken in making such assumptions.    

Environmental legislation must be adhered to first of all by the state. If the state through its institutions ignores environmental legislation how do we expect Joe Bloggs to respect it?

The EU has given us the tools to hold decision takers to account. This is a reason why a large number of environmentalists voted in favour of Malta’s accession to the EU. It is the only way to save what’s left of our heritage.

Published in the Environment Supplement of  The Malta Independent on Sunday,   November 21, 2010