The circus has come to town

  

 

When considering the draft National En­vironment Policy some patience is required. On one hand it is a detailed document covering a substantial number of environmental issues. However, its exposition of the issues to be tackled contrasts starkly with the government’s environmental performance throughout its long term in office.

The draft policy says more about the government than about the environment. It collates together the accumulated environmental responsibilities the government should have been addressing throughout the past years. The draft policy tells us: this is what the government ought to have done. It further tells us that in the next 10 years, the government will try its best to remedy its past failures by doing what it should do.

The government’s words and action are in sharp contrast, as I have been repeatedly pointing out in these columns. In late 2007, Cabinet approved the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which, although being less detailed than today’s draft National Environment Policy, says practically the same things. It also covers a 10-year period (2007-2016), half of which has elapsed without the set targets having been addressed. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is the Cabinet member politically responsible for this failure. Having failed repeatedly, I find it difficult to think how he could be trusted to deliver on environmental or sustainability issues.

On the basis of this experience, it is reasonable to dismiss the government’s media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin where the draft National Environment Policy was launched as just another exercise in rhetoric.

It is definitely not a sudden conversion in favour of environmental issues that moved the government to act. The present exercise is the result of society’s metamorphosis, which came about as a direct consequence of years of environmental activism in Malta. Civil society has pushed a reluctant Nationalist-led government to this point.

No one in his right senses can quarrel with the proposed National Environment Policy in principle. Yet, it is a fact that the environment has always been the Cinderella of government business. All talk and little walk. A clear example is the adjudication process of the Delimara power station extension. When the submitted tenders were adjudicated, it resulted that the submissions that were technically and environmentally superior were considered less favourably than the tender that was perceived as being economically more advantageous. When push comes to shove, environmental issues are not given priority, the adjudication criteria being skewed in favour of perceived economic gain.

All this contrasts with the declarations in favour of green procurement in the draft National Environment Policy. In defending the decision on the use of heavy fuel oil in the power station extension, government spokesmen are in fact stating that while the environment is the government’s political priority it still retains the right to have second thoughts whenever it takes an important decision.

When the government plays around with its declared environmental convictions with the ease of a juggler, it sows serious doubts on its intentions. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment is doing his best to convince that, under his watch, the environment carries weight it is clear to all that he has not succeeded in wiping the slate clean. He is still conditioned by the attitudes and the decisions taken by his boss and colleagues in the recent past. Their attitudes have not changed at all. Old habits die hard.

On a positive note, I have to state that the process leading to the draft National Environment Policy submitted for public consultation was one which involved civil society. A number of proposals submitted by civil society, including those in an AD document submitted to Mario de Marco, were taken on board. I also had the opportunity to discuss the draft policy and AD’s views with Dr de Marco on more than one occasion. The discussions were, in my opinion, beneficial.

The problem the government has so far failed to overcome is that it preaches one thing and continually does the opposite. The only times when it carries out positive environment action is when it is forced on this course by EU legislation or by threats of EU infringement proceedings. Within this context, declarations that Malta aims to go beyond the requirement of the EU’s acquis are, to say the least, hilarious. It would have been much better if the basics of the EU environmental acquis are first put in place.

The environmental initiatives taken during the past seven years have been mostly funded by the EU.

They would not have been possible without such funding.

By spelling it out, the draft National Environment Policy defines the government’s past failures. Hopefully, it also lays the groundwork for the required remedial action. The environmental destruction the government has facilitated and encouraged will take a long time to remedy. In some cases, the damage done is beyond repair.

Beyond the entertainment value of the media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin, these first steps are just the beginning of a long journey. For the sake of Malta’s future generations I hope that the government does not go astray once more.

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Dealing with Environmental Crime

published July 9, 2011

 In late 2008, the European Union, through a joint decision of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, adopted Directive 99/2008 “on the protection of the environment through criminal law”.

Member states had to implement this directive by not later than December 26, 2010. Malta, together with 11 other EU member states, did not comply. As a result, on June 16, the EU Commission issued a warning to all 12 states to comply within two months.

The EU directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law does not create new environment legislation. It aims to consolidate existing laws through harmonising penalties that should be inflicted as well as by ensuring that these penalties are really a deterrent.

Annex A to the directive lists EU legislation (some 70 directives and regulations) subject to this directive’s provisions. This is wide ranging and includes legislation regulating waste, GMOs, air quality, quality of water for human consumption, use of sewage sludge in agriculture, use and transportation of hazardous materials, protection of water from nitrates originating from agriculture, trade in endangered species and many others.

Within EU structures, the Maltese government opposed provisions of the proposed directive. So it is no surprise that this resistance is also reflected in the implementation process. This gives a new significance to the Maltese government’s declarations on the importance the environment has in its political agenda.

During the discussion stage in the EU structures, representatives of the Malta government expressed a view contrary to the harmonisation of sanctions primarily on the basis of the economic disparity across the EU member states.

The impact assessment produced by the EU on the proposed directive had emphasised that, in the EU, there are three areas that organised crime focuses on to the detriment of the environment. These are illicit trade in ozone depleting substances, illicit hazardous waste treatment and disposal and illicit trade in endangered wildlife species. A study entitled Organised Environmental Crime In EU Member States (2003) quoted by the EU impact assessment also states that 73 per cent of researched environmental crime cases involve corporations or corporate-like structures.

Organised environmental crime, which has a turnover of billions of euros in the EU, can have a devastating effect on the economy. There are various examples which we can draw upon. The case of the contaminated mozzarella in the Naples environs in March 2008 is one such example. Organised crime pocketed substantial landfill charges for the handling of toxic and hazardous waste, which was subsequently dumped in areas that were reserved for the grazing of buffalo. The resulting buffalo mozzarella was contaminated with dioxin. The impacts on the mozzarella industry were substantial.

Proof of the operations of the eco-Mafia has also surfaced some time ago when Francesco Fonti, a Mafia turncoat, took the witness stand against the Calabria Mafia. We do recall information given as to the sinking in the Mediterranean of about 42 ships laden with toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste. One of the said ships has been located and identified off the coast of Reggio Calabria.

This network of organised environmental crime is so vast that, at a time, it also dumped toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste in Somalia. The warlords in the Somalia civil war were financed by the eco-Mafia. They supplied them with arms in return for their consent to the dumping of the toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste. Italian journalists (RaiTre) who had tracked down the shipments were shot and murdered in Mogadishu.

The dumping of toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea can have very serious impacts on Malta. It contaminates what’s left of fish stocks but also, depending on the location used for dumping, it can impact Malta’s potable water, 60 per cent of which originates from seawater processed by reverse osmosis plants.

Given these serious impacts I would have expected that the Maltese government would be at the forefront in implementing the directive on environmental crime in order to ensure that issues of cross-border organised environmental crime are adequately tackled. It is indeed very unfortunate that the tools which the EU provides so that Malta can protect its real interests are continuously ignored. One cannot help but ask why.

Law firm Hugo Lepage & Partners, in a comparative study commissioned by the EU Commission and entitled Study On Environmental Crime In The 27 Member States (2007), repeatedly identifies penalties for environmental crime in Malta as being at the lower end of the scale in the EU. The message that gets through is that environmental crime is treated lightly in Malta. Malta is not alone in this respect: it enjoys the company of a small number of other countries.

Environmental crime should be punished through penalties that are effective and proportionate to the environmental damage carried out or envisaged. It is in Malta’s interest that this is done expeditiously.