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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That business-as-usual stand

January 15, 2011

Saturday, 15th January 2011

That business-as-usual stand

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity was first discussed at length at the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 giving birth to the Convention on Biological Diversity, today having 193 parties. The European Union, a party to theConvention, in a 2001 summit initiated ambitious commitments agreed upon by heads of state and of government to halt the loss of biodiversity in the EU by the end of 2010. This became one of the main targets for managing and conservingnatural resources and was later endorsed by the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.To achieve such targets and put biodiversity on course to recovery, the EU, in 2006, approved a detailed action plan, aiming primarily to clarify responsibilities concerning the implementation of legislation already in place. As a sign of further support, in 2007, the UN declared 2010 as the International Year for Biological Diversity. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgentlyneeded”. Such concept was elaborated in September 2010 at a high-level meeting of the UN with the participation of heads of state and of government.

The IYB’s main aim is to raise awareness on the importance of biodiversity with a view of engaging all stakeholders for protecting life on earth, to influence decision-makers and to raise biological diversity to the top of the political agenda. Everyone has to do one’s part. It is unacceptable not to take immediate and effective action. There cannot be a new vision excluding stakeholders. Only such a broad-based partnership, commitment, cooperation, coordination andcommunication can ensure life can continue to flourish on this planet for the benefit of species, naturally including humankind. This is the only way a commitment can be acquired to reinforce the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. An evaluation report has to be submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2011.

As a member state of the CBD, the UN and the EU, Malta is bound by all these commitments. What were Malta’scontributions towards halting biodiversity loss? Apart from the official periodic educational snippets, on the line of what environmental NGOs used to do more than 40 years ago, there is little one can highlight except for the occasional declaration of a protected area without any follow-up whatsoever. On the other hand, however, there is, unfortunately, quite a long list of decisions, actions or lack of them, which not only did not contribute to the prevention of biological loss but had a completely diametrically opposite effect. Considering the source of such negative impacts on biodiversity, this shows the importance of Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business asusual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed”.

An off-the-cuff glance at some local “contributions” is a sine qua non. What comes to mind first is the number of alien invasive species that established themselves in the wild these last few years. Some have already managed to prove very costly not only economically but also ecologically and socially. Some of these introductions, albeit not all intentional but all due to lack of any foresight, include the red palm weevil, geranium bronze butterfly, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the Levantine water frog and about a dozen molluscs(snails) spreading from around some garden centres. Others might not have yet made an impact but when they do it will be too late for any action.

Climate change increases additional costs to control IAS. Britain spends £1.7 billion a year and EU costs amount to about €12 billion. No official figures are available for Malta despite the fact that IAS’s negative impacts are becoming more widespread. And the importation of flora and fauna, the main carriers of IAS,  goes on without any hindrance at all,  except, perhaps, for a phytosanitary/veterinary certificate on which some IAS have travelled.

More of a concern is the fact that the authority responsible to control and eliminate such IAS hinted at the possible intoxication of a fresh water pool to eliminate an alien frog in eco- Gozo. Much the same like advice from Josef Fritzl on how to protect children from sex abuse!

Still very unfortunate were development permits (none related to the management of the areas) issued inside EU Natura 2000 sites. A quick recollection reveals Mistra, Baħrija, and Dwejra – again in eco-Gozo. And, naturally, Buskett, another Natura 2000 site, saved by the skin of its teeth from becoming a public garden where, possibly, pansies and geraniums would have joined the numbers of IAS at this site.The business-as-usual stand adopted by Malta in international fora on the listing of the bluefin tuna in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of  Wild Flora and Fauna and against adjusted quotas, both raised within the EU, is perhaps the cherry on the IYB’s cake.  Mr Ban’s emphasis that “business as usual is not an option” and that “new targets and a new vision is indeed urgently needed” seem specifically coined for the political fraternity.

The year 2010 has come and gone and with it a number of species of wild flora and fauna, which either gave up the ghost in the year of deliverance or else have been pushed to the brink of doing so. The target date has now been extended to 2020. By that time, today’s actors’ names will be engraved in stone – as a reminder of who was accountable for preventing biodiversity loss by 2010.


Behold, the promised Eco-Gozo

December 14, 2010

Tuesday, 14th December 2010

Behold, the promised Eco-Gozo

Alfred E. Baldacchino

I  must admit that Eco-Gozo was a brilliant idea. The launching of this bright idea, however, lacked adequate communication, education and public awareness and cannot be said to be that brilliant.  Stakeholders did not have enough chance to meet to discuss, to suggest and to feel part of this concept. Public consultations lacked any brilliancy. All subsequent development, in its widest sense, does not necessarily dovetail in this concept and is indeed bizarre, to say the least.

Gozo is a small island, endowed with a topography and a geology that make it a unique ecological gem. But, because of its smallness, every mismanaged and short-sighted development has drastic effects on its ecosystem, defying the whole Eco-Gozo concept.

Just a few examples would suffice to show how this concept is unfortunately being torpedoed, with the official blessing of the same authority that should be in the forefront to stop them.

Wied il-Qasab, meandering from Nadur to Ramla l-Ħamra, is fed by natural springs, originating from the upper garigue. The water percolates down through the strata to the valley bed, sustaining both the valley ecosystem and cultivated fields. A short-sighted permit issued against all technical advice saw the excavation of the water source, devastating historical planning techniques dating back to the times of the Knights, shattering bell-shaped wells that stored precious water resources, eventually cutting off one of the valley springs, while negatively impacting the others. All for the sake of a cemetery, where the dead, directly and indirectly, will now contribute to the destruction of this part of Eco- Gozo.

Dwejra is one of the landmarks of Eco-Gozo.  Looking through the azure window reveals the Mediterranean culture, biodiversity and history. Dwejra is a special area of conservation, part of the EU Natura 2000 network, also proposed as an International Heritage Site. A few weeks ago, Dwejra was made to play prostitute in exchange for economic gain. Tom, Dick and Harry were officially assured that there was no ecosystem in this part of the SAC. They were also lectured on the fact that if the economy does well, the environment usually does better. A couple of horses were eventually filmed trotting on the quarry-sand covering the fossil-rich rocks, with the azure window in the background. The covering of sand sent the eco-sensitive public in a rage, seeing the authority who should have ensured that this did not happen, giving its official blessings. Another under-the-belt blow for Eco-Gozo.

This is the International Year of Biodiversity. Someone, a few weeks back, had another “brilliant” idea for this eco-island – to clean the valleys. With myopic ingenuity, devoid of any ecological sensitivity, and of any environmental management, the Marsalforn Valley was bulldozed.  By all means, let the valleys be cleaned to be in a better position to hold more water, as they used to do in the distant past. But for heaven’s sake this is not the way: descending on valleys and destroying all ecosystems in the bulldozers’ path. The end does not justify the means. The valleys have been neglected, abused and mismanaged for so long.

The bottom line again was the economic gain – time-wise at the expense of social and ecological expense. Who would think of using a bulldozer in St John’s Co-Cathedral to clean the accumulated dust in every nook and cranny and so save on time and expense?

eco-scars and eco-wounds

The extant indigenous protected mature trees in the said valley show the scars and wounds left behind, some with exposed and mutilated roots, in a bed now devoid of species that once flourished in the valley ecosystem. The saplings are all gone. Once, there was an authority that used to protect the environment and would have issued permits with conditions regarding such work in delicate ecosystems.  It also used to monitor the works to ensure no damage was done.

It would not be surprising if Tom, Dick and Harry are again informed that, if the economy does well, the environment will do better and there was no ecosystem in the path of bulldozers.  From the economic short-term point of view, the aim might have been achieved but the social and environmental accounts now show an alarming deficit. Another Eco-Gozo concept sunk beneath the waves. Another case of missing the wood for the trees.

The next step towards the concept of Eco-Gozo now seems to be the proposed development of that idyllic place Ħondoq ir-Rummien. Will the authority that used to protect the environment be taken in by the great financial glitter and dismiss the fragile, little understood and uncared for social and environmental unique values?  Will Tom Dick and Harry be told again such a financial economic weight will raise the social and environmental (deficit) sky-high, which will definitely contribute to the Eco-Gozo myth?

The brilliant idea of an ecological island seems to be slowly but surely fading away into extinction, like so many indigenous species. Eco-Gozo can only bear fruit if the entities that cannot and do not want to take into consideration the social and environmental wealth keep their hands off Gozo.

One is now bound to ask:  Is it Eco-Gozo … or Ecce Gozo?

aebaldacchino@gmail.

 


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


Dwejra: Gone with the wind

November 13, 2010

Saturday, 13th November 2010

Talking Point

Dwejra: Gone with the wind

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Dwejra is a special area of conservation forming part of the EU Natura 2000 sites according to the Habitats Directive, as locally transposed by legal notice 311 of 2006. Nature Trust (Malta), in 2003, in partnership with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and WWF Italy, acquired an EU LIFE grant for Dwejra, amounting to €324,000. An action plan was drawn up by a steering committee and approved by the Mepa board and endorsed by the government on November 29, 2005.

http://www.mepa.org.mt/LpDocumentDetails?syskey=%20541

Once completed in 2007, the project had to have an integrated conservation and management plan for the area, complete conservation and full protection of the site, increased environmental awareness, a stronger enforcement function in the areas, a long-term sustainability plan for the site and had to serve as a guide of good practice for the setting-up of other coastal nature reserves in the Mediterranean basin. And I am not joking.

During the implementation of the project, work was stopped for a number of months because of the building of a restaurant on the site. An EU delegation visited the island, and Nature Trust subsequently resigned from the steering committee commenting that, since 2007, the site has been left to deteriorate and “the place is now unmanaged and abandoned”. The only progress registered was the building of the restaurant.

This November 1, six NGOs drew Mepa’s attention to the scandalous disaster at Dwejra Natura 2000 site, following a Mepa permit issued to Fire and Blood Productions. A substantial area of the rocky coast was covered with crushed construction waste of hardstone aggregate, rich in lime which kills micro-organisms, with disastrous effects. The company filming Gate Of Throne apologised and blamed the subcontractor. The planning director was quoted as saying the least sensitive zone (sic!), about 750 square metres, had been specially earmarked for filming, blaming the production company for not informing Mepa when it started laying the sand and using plastic mesh. Mepa said in a briefing it would be making a case to withdraw part of or the entire €15,000 bank guarantee and it was not ruling out other measures of redress. Mepa also said it wanted to send out a clear message the company could still beheld liable for other damages through criminal and civil proceeding and the bank guarantee did not exonerate it from other penalties.

It is quite customary now for Mepa to lock the stable doors after the horse has bolted.

In one of the news bulletins it was remarked how nice the cleaned rocks looked and how the filming works generated €5million. I believe the filming company would gladly have paid €150,000 to construct such a film set. Forfeiting €15,000 is quite a discount bargain. Sedentary species present in the area covered by the plastic mesh had heavy weight dumped on them, trampled upon when the sand was laid and again when it was removed. Furthermore, the left over quarry limestone sand which passed through the mesh will continue to impact the habitat until this disappears. The brushing up process carried out to “clean” the Natura 2000 site also has a negative impact and may damage biota, sweep it up with the sand or will sweep up naturally occurring sediment as well, thus changing the habitat characteristics. Species included in the Species Data Form forwarded by Mepa to the EU when Dwejra was proposed as a special area of conservation includes plants, lichens and small crevice-dwelling invertebrates. The area harbours two endemic woodlice, an endemic pseudoscorpion and also endemic snails, not excluding other species, such as insects. A permit allowing the covering of such a footprint with crushed construction waste of hardstone aggregate, even if carried out to the letter of the conditions, would also have resulted in negative impact. The director of environment, the person responsible for the implementation of the Habitats Directive, knowing full well there should have been a prior environment impact assessment for any commercial activity not related to the management of the Natura 2000 site, was quoted as saying residual damage was still being quantified but it was not looking bad (sic). Perhaps the scientific studies that led to such a statement can be officially published in connection with such a permit which could not, and should not, have been issued.

If I did not personally follow the evolvements of such shameful episodes in an EU member state’s Natura 2000 site, I would have thought all this is fiction. But, then, fiction meant to please should have as much resemblance as possible to truth. In its role as the protector of the environment, both in the national and in a European Community context, Mepa has lost the game of thrones.  It is such an impotent weakling in the field of environmental protection when faced by glamorous commercial projects.

With apologies to J. B. Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls, “…I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood…”  The EU DG Environment should investigate how Natura 2000 sites in Malta are being brought to disrepute.