Sifting solidified sand at Dwejra

February 9, 2011

Wednesday, 9th February 2011

Sifting solidified sand at Dwejra

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Following the Dwejra debacle, three reports were published: a legal report by Kevin Aquilina and Simone Borg; a technical report by Louis Cassar et al. and an administrative report by the auditor of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, Joe Falzon.

The legal report aims at reviewing the process adopted by Mepa in issuing development permissions for film shooting applications in environmentally sensitive areas. Referring to the guidelines on the implementation of the Habitats Directive, this report highlights measures regarding activities in special areas of conservation (SACs), such as appropriate assessment, the precautionary principle and the related Aarhus Convention, which emphasises the importance of public consultations in relation to environmental decision-making. If  Mepa failed to include any reference to the Habitats Directive in the permit, how can the applicant be aware of such legal obligations? And how can one expect Mepa to follow the guidelines of the implementation of this EU directive with regardto such activity? The Film Commissioner interviewed by the authors commented that the permission issued is “…too generic as it covers various sites at one go.  Conditions need to be streamlined better per filming site”.

The Dwejra permit in question included all levels of protection under the Development Planning Act, completely ignoring any level of protection under the Environment Protection Act – no mention that Dwejra is a SAC, part of the EU Natura 2000 Network.  No reference to the important geological features of the site,  yet “the applicant was given development permission… to cover the site with ‘sand or shingle’”.

Rock pools 'cleaned' from 'sand or shingle'

A very interesting, not surprising, excerpt from this legal report is that “Both the Director of  Planning and the Director for Environment Protection thought that Mepa was exercising a dual role:  it had to safeguard the integrity of  Natura 2000 sites but, at the same time, it is called upon to give its consent or otherwise to activities taking place at these sites. They thought that Mepa should move out of the first function and that such function should be carried out by a management committee independent of Mepa so that it could regulate such committee from a distance without having such a dual role”. Isn’t this what private and political entities,  eNGOs and individuals have been stressing for such a long time, that environmental protection and development planning are not compatible? Mepa cannot tell its left foot from its right. Environmental obligations, on a national and international level are still out of Mepa’s grasp. Mepa is the competent authority for environmental matters.  Seems it wants to abdicate from such responsibility.

The scientific report shows that the thick layer of “sand” completely buried flora and fauna. Only three plant clusters were recorded, two identified and one consisting of a number of desiccated twigs, which could not be identified. Any plants present in the area, would already have been obliterated during deposition of “sand”.  The report refers to dry vegetation on the periphery, saying these could be either removed buried plants from site or introduced plants with the extraneous quarry sand, potentially a means of introducing invasive species in this part of the SAC.

Dried top parts of vegetation, with roots under the 'sand or shingle'

With regard to fauna “at the base of boulders and under small stones and in depressions, crevices and at the base of vegetation”, two species of ants and two different species of terrestrial gastropods were recorded in the reference area: two forms of the endemic Maltese top snail and a Maltese round-mouthed snail. On the fringes of the area two unidentifiable snails were also recorded. Nothing was found in the area of “gravelly mud”.  Not surprising, considering the thickness of the covering material and the way it was “cleaned” with bristle brooms and brushes. In the adjacent rock pools, some with sand deposits, large populations of crustaceans (copepods), large number of ciliates and sparse populations of an isopod were recorded. The habitat type “vegetated sea cliffs of the Mediterranean coasts with endemic Limonium spp” listed in the Habitats Directive and also in local legislation is reported to have suffered a high negative impact in the affected areas. Other important species of flora included in the Standard Data Form, compiled by Mepa and sent to the EU, regardingDwejra Natura 2000, include the Maltese sea lavender, the Maltese camomile, the rare pygmy groundsel, the cliff carrot, all endemic or sub-endemic, listed in the Malta Red Data Book, and the rare corn daisy, also listed in the Red Data Book. These were recorded either around the perimeter of the covered area or in the adjacent area and one or two of them were partially covered with the deposited “gravelly mud”. Mepa initially declared the area as bare rock with no ecosystem; later it referred to it as a “white area” in the SAC. When the report was published MEPA commented there was no evidence the deposited sand eliminated the terrestrial fauna and flora of the site!

dead vegetation - micro habitats - eliminated by the cover of 'sand or shingles'

Besides, the significance of damage to fossils and ichnofossils within the site and in other parts of Dwejra is considered to be high, given the extent of observed damage, the sensitivity of the resource to damage, permanent and irreversible nature of damage and inexistent scope for mitigating impacts, notwithstanding that it is protected by the Cultural HeritageAct.

Damaged fossils

The Mepa auditor’s report exposed all the cracks and fissures (and incompetence) of this competent authority for the environment. This report reveals the letter of consent was signed by the Director of Planning, who is quoted as saying the Planning Directorate was communicating on behalf of the Environment Protection Directorate! The auditor also reports that “…it was agreed that all filming applications would be led and processed through the Planning Directorate” which “is authorised to represent Mepa”. On this matter the auditor states that “the legal adviser explained the situation in a written note which states: Instruments of delegation are published by government notice. There is an instrument of delegation in relation to delegated decisions (which is not the case here) which refers to both directors”.  Accordingly, the permit could only be issued by Mepa’s CEO and not by any particular director. One might ask how valid was such a permit?

This report affirms that all work had to be monitored, at the expense of the applicant, but, notwithstanding, it never was. It confirms that rain had washed a good quantity of fine sand into the rock pools, on the perimeters and also overspilled into the rocky foreshore while the rest turned into mud. It quotes the chairman and the legal adviser saying that, since only standard conditions were imposed and no special conditions were included, the need for an assessment was superfluous. It reveals that Mepa officials were under undue pressure to issue the permit in inadequate time to make proper assessments of the implications. Both Mepa directors were critical of the Film Commissioner, among others.

The thickness of the 'sand or shingle' which covered 750 sq m inside the delineated Dwejra Natura 2000 site, which according to the local EU Competent Authority, was just 'bare rock' and where there was no 'ecosystem'.

The auditor emphasised that “Mepa’s Director of  Environment had the obligation to screen the applications (within SACs)” so he could “identify the likely impacts upon a Natura 2000 site and consider whether these impacts are likely to be significant”. Despite claims this had been done, the auditor did not find information in any file “where and what criteria were used to come to this conclusion”. Not only so but the auditor states the indications are that the assessment of the application was carried out by the Planning Control Department in consultation with the Directorate of Environment Protection, indicating also that the latter was absent from such assessment procedure.

The auditor states that the precautionary principle was not even considered and evasive answers were given to his office. He was told conditions are based on circumstances that are not abnormal, despite the fact that the Habitat Directive makes it clear that “the safeguards set out… are triggered not by a certainty but by a likelihood of significant effects”. A strong worded comment by the auditor is that “Unfortunately, the DEP abdicated its responsibilities to the Planning Directorate that was ill-equipped to carry out this work”. This is the result of having environment and planning in the same bed, with the environment playing the part of the ghost of Cinderella.

My first contribution on the matter was titled Dwejra – Gone With The Wind (November 13, 2010). After reading the above three reports, I regret to say Mepa has gone to the dogs.

_____________________

P.S. Photos do not appear in the original article but were added by the author on this blog.

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Dwejra: developments

November 27, 2010

November 2010

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101121/opinion/editorial

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101120/local/mepa-director-martin-seychell-changes-ecosystem-comment

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101120/local/views-from-the-ground

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101127/local/dwejra-assessment-starts

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101125/local/heads-must-roll-after-dwejra-sand-dumping

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101118/local/pl-reiterates-call-for-independent-inquiry-into-dwejra-disaster

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101117/local/total-elimination-of-ecosystem-at-dwejra

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101118/local/it-s-just-bare-rock-mepa-director

http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101127/opinion/much-more-than-bare-rock


The Nadur cemetery – where the dead will haunt and curse the living

June 21, 2010

Sunday 08 February 2009

Alfred E. Baldacchino

On 6 November 2006, Mepa approved the development of the Nadur cemetery (PA 2407/04) despite the repeated advice of its own technical and professional officials that such a project was objectionable in principle. Some wrongly believe that it was the technical and professional staff who recommended such a project. Mepa also waived the study of an environment impact assessment (EIA), despite the fact that this is an ODZ (Outside Development Zone) development, and based its decision on a hydrology report by a geologist, on the grounds that the project is unlikely to have any adverse impact on these resources. In so doing, Mepa thus completely ignored the precautionary principle adopted by the Environment Protection Act 2001 as a guiding principle.

The Malta Resources Authority, through its Water Directorate, did not object to this development either. Work started in summer 2007. An appeal was lodged according to the provision of the Development Planning Act. The sittings for the hearing of such an appeal were convened on 9 January 2008, on 12 March 2008, 2 April 2008, 18 June 2008, 24 September 2008, 29 October 2008, 3 December 2008 and lately postponed to 4 March 2009. Despite the deliberations that were made and the documents presented, no decision was ever taken.

In the meantime, work on the site continued unhindered, the footprint was excavated, foundations laid and building progressed. Protected carob trees were uprooted this year and “planted” elsewhere (see photo). One would have thought that this would never have been possible considering that the environment is one of the pillars of the government of the day, and considering the negative impact that this project is having on the economic, social and ecological environment. Could this possibly be a subtle strategy to enable the finalisation of the development before the appeal is decided? And can anyone be blamed for concluding that this is an insult to the intelligence of the people.

No public consultation was ever made on this ODZ development. Yet a number of letters were officially, personally and publicly written to the Prime Minister, who is also responsible for the environment. A number of social entities, and members of the general public have expressed their disapproval, both on this development and on the way it is being handled. Maltese farmers have also publicly supported the Gozitan farmers in their efforts to save their livelihood. The national authorities, whether political, administrative or religious are completely numb, which can also make one conclude that these are four square behind such an unsustainable project with all the resulting negative impacts also pointed out publicly. Such an absurd situation has to be urgently addressed in Mepa’s promised reform, not only with regard to this particular issue, but also to other issues where an appeal is lodged. It must be assured that when an appeal is made against a development where the damage would be irreversible, work on the project has to be immediately frozen until the appeal is decided. This would benefit the social, economic and ecological environment in toto.

When the dust settles and the Nadur cemetery opens its door to its permanent residents (I am convinced that the appeal would still not have been decided – irreparable damage has already been done), the damage would not only be irreversible but also persistent. Who will then stand up and publicly say that he is accountable for such a scenario? Will it be the Diocese for Gozo, one of whose officials is the applicant? Will it be the minister responsible for MRA who has not lifted a finger to protect and save the irreplaceable priceless aquifer and the lives and ecosystem it sustains? Will it be the minister responsible for agriculture who is responsible for the well being of agriculture and the community dependent on it, which is already being affected by what has been partially done so far? Will it be the minister responsible for Mepa who has ignored inside technical and professional advice and issued the permit?

The bending over backwards to accommodate the dead at the expense of the living is indeed unbelievable! “Our lives end the day we become silent about things that really matter. And in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King). That is why the Nadur cemetery will deliver financially to the very, very few, in the name of the dead at the expense of the social, economic, and ecological environment. And those who will be laid to rest at the Nadur cemetery will haunt and curse the living.