Let me start off with a proviso: this article reflects solely my opinion and may not reflect the opinion of other members of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) board or the ERA itself. The article is my own personal initiative and I have not been commissioned by any individual or entity to pen it. I would normally not comment on ERA board proceedings, but am making an exception for the Delimara power station permit, which is in the public domain.
The drama that unfolded last Monday at the Delimara power station Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) permit public hearing at the ERA is tantamount to a tragic comedy, where an attempt was made to shout down or denigrate expert opinion. It also exposed the reality that, in the absence of the ‘abstain’ option, any objective professional sitting on any decision-taking board in this country will be ascribed political leanings depending on the way he/she votes.
Tribalism is alive and kicking in Malta, with no space for a ‘third way’, namely that of the non-aligned, objective professional. I went to the hearing with an open mind and only paid heed to what the experts had to tell us board members. I went through a logical, rational mental process which excluded anything that was not uttered by experts or was superfluous fluff. I see no reason why the other board members did not do the same.
The Delimara power station IPPC process was a steep learning curve for many. For instance, seeking to explain the motivations behind my vote opened a can of worms and unleashed the usual online trolls and cronies who invariably attributed my decision to a collusion with government for personal gain. Those making these puerile accusations should know that there are still some people in this country who do not depend on political patronage. For the sake of transparency, I have no qualms about explaining the motivations for any vote I may take even though this may invariable invite more flak.
We should not be too shocked that most valid people are steering away from mainstream politics and from the public scrutiny that sitting on a decision-taking board such as the ERA brings with it. This is a tragedy, with the consequence that the planning process is dominated by political appointees.
Probably few realised that what was decided upon last Monday was an operational permit - the IPPC one – not a development permit. The infrastructure already in place at Delimara, such as the jetty, had already been deliberated upon and approved by the Planning Authority (PA) years before. Malta’s reliance on the interconnector (which still pollutes, albeit far away from our shores), the siting of the floating storage unit (FSU) tanker outside Marsaxlokk Harbour, the gas pipeline and other preferred options were not up for discussion last Monday.
The IPPC is also a living permit, meaning that ERA has tools to periodically assess compliance with the permit conditions, such as discharge limits. The three permit holders will have to ensure a high degree of compliance with the voluminous permit conditions.
Politicians and their cronies should be barred from decisions being taken on issues of national importance, so that objective professionals do the talking and decisions are taken on the back of solid, scientific evidence
The way that the ERA’s first vote in public was met by certain quarters speaks volumes about the country’s collective environmental credentials and its love for partisan politics. The ERA is a fledgling authority which, since its inception last April, has made quantum leaps forward to foster an in-house capacity to really stand up for the environment. This despite all the spokes thrown in its wheels by those who still seek to domineer it.
For instance, when the ERA decided to lodge an appeal to the Townsquare development in Sliema it was shot down both by the Planning Authority’s legal counsel – who said the ERA could not appeal since it had participated in the corresponding environment impact assessment (EIA) – as well as by the some sectors of the public who questioned why the ERA had not appealed the Mrieħel high-rise development as well.
A recent survey by James Debono published in Malta Today indicates that the Planning Commission of the PA has ignored almost 70 per cent of the ERA’s recommendations concerning outside development zone (ODZ) applications. Well and truly, people get the politicians and the environmental authority they deserve… and politicians should take a back seat and let the professionals at ERA to do their job in a serene way. Otherwise it is useless for political parties to set up special think-tanks like Forum għal professjonisti (Forum for professionals). Branding the ERA board members as ‘puppets of the government’ is disrespectful meddling in what should be an autonomous national authority.
The least politicians could do is to refrain from undermining the ERA by issuing gratuitous statements. ERA chairman Victor Axiak was correct in declaring his conflict of interest before the start of the ERA public hearing… it would have been unethical of him not to have done so. Rather than labelling him as spineless, certain political quarters should have applauded his action, especially at a time when the subject of ethics dominates the political spiel. It is probably just a figment of my imagination but any political party that prides itself in being an environmental stalwart should promote the following message at the next general elections: “Inqas indħil fl-ERA u fl-ambjent” (Less interference in the ERA and in environmental issues). Relinquishing at least some of their hold on such important authorities is the single most significant step any party can make.
When a political party is sitting comfortably on the government benches its views on the planning process are diametrically opposed to when it is in Opposition. For instance, the same people who made numerous representations to the ERA prior to and during the Delimara power station IPPC permit process were the same people who, in 2009, when I was advocating the refusal of the Wied l-Għasel valley development application in Mosta and the repeal of the Baħrija valley permit granted to Victor Scerri, simply found refuge in saying that politicians should not interfere in Mepa’s decisions. What short memories and what a Damascene conversion indeed!
In an ideal situation, politicians and their cronies should be barred from decisions being taken on issues of national importance, so that objective professionals do the talking and decisions are taken on the back of solid, scientific evidence. After all, evidence-based policy-making is a cornerstone of modern democracies nowadays. Alas, not of Malta, so far.
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