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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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