The controversial clean-up operation to remove sand strewn at Dwejra in Gozo for the filming of a movie was only half complete yesterday, the top layers of the sand having solidified to the point that they cannot be brushed away.

It was, therefore, still too early for the planning authority to evaluate the extent of the damage to the sensitive Natura 2000 site, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority said.

Mepa yesterday gave an update on the environmental situation that came to light two weeks ago when the sand started to be removed and potentially damaging heavy machinery was brought in to do the job by the production company’s subcontractors.

Last week Mepa ordered that the clean-up be done by hand and it has since been monitoring the process.

The sand is being brushed off the fossil-rich rock but the use of picks to break it up has also been observed over the weekend, prompting a concern that the workers could be causing damage because they could not know where the hardened sand ends and the fossil bed begins.

Asked about the possibility of causing more harm, the authority confirmed the use of trowels, spades, shovels and other manual tools, apart from the brushes, saying they were necessary to weaken the solidified top layers of the sand.

The authority reiterated that it would be considering what action to take once the whole clean-up operation was finished and an evaluation exercise carried out, specifying that the least sensitive area, spanning 750 square metres, had been identified for the filming of HBO’s Game of Thrones. An eyewitness has said about 45 truckloads of sand were deposited in the area but the planning authority did not confirm the figure.

Wirt Għawdex has also joined the chorus of environmental NGOs in expressing its disappointment at the way the damage was allowed to happen.

“We do not disagree with efforts to generate economic activity. However, any projects should have as a priority the protection of the island’s environmental and historical patrimony,” it said.

Mepa environment director Martin Seychell has suggested more control in future over the contractors hired by production companies, proposing a system of approval of those with good track records and saying location managers had to be trained and aware of risks.

The planning authority intends carrying out its own post mortem once the situation is done and dusted to understand exactly what went wrong. Mr Seychell said it planned to have discussions with the Film Commission and stakeholders, bearing in mind the industry’s economic importance.

Film line producer Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante, in an opinion piece in The Times, has described the situation as an “isolated incident” that unfairly led to serious repercussions on other producers who wished to film in Malta at similar sensitive sites.

Mr Scerri-Ferrante, who has been involved in the development of Malta’s film-servicing industry, proposed that when Mepa issued filming permits in the future, besides considering the environmental impact, it would give importance to the production team’s track record and inform itself of the experience of the location manager assigned to a site.

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