Successive governments over the years have dumped national projects and industries in the south of the island. The Delimara power station, the Malta Freeport, the gas bottling station, the fuel depot, the oil depot for marine purpose and needless to say the airport, the flight path of which is directly above Birżebbuġa.

These are all important industries for the economy but they are also a source of unimaginable hardship for the residents of this seaside village. 

The Freeport operates 24/7, and the noise emanating from operations is so loud that many residents, especially those who live close to the terminal, are unable to sleep most of the nights. The situation becomes worse during the hot summer days when people yearn for much needed ventilation, but are incessantly disturbed by the humming noise of container movement.

The situation is desperate and the people of Birżebbuġa deserve better. 

There is a solution, the installation of shore to vessel supply, a system to provide power to ships from the quay. 

By 2025 the Freeport will have to abide by an EU directive to instal such a system. But why should the residents wait another six years to enjoy some peace and quiet in their homes? 

In the past few months I, as representative of the Birżebbuġa residents and also as a fellow resident, asked Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, who is responsible for the Freeport, a number of parliamentary questions related to this issue. I had specifically asked him when is the government installing the ship-to-vessel supply. 

His reply was evasive, and from which it was not difficult to deduce that no such initiative to alleviate hardship for residents is on the cards.

Then, a few weeks ago, during a press conference the same minister announced an investment of €31 million. We were told that the investment was intended primarily to reduce the noise of the Freeport operation. Good…. we thought. We were wrong.

A week had barely passed when another announcement was made, this time by the Freeport management in which they said that the Freeport needs to expand. We were told that 15 RGT cranes and 67 tractors/trailers are going to be added up to the current fleet. Even if these are noiseless, they are still going to be added to the fleet. 

Apart from this issue in Birżebbuġa, there is another grave matter which the government has kept under wraps, until I got to know about it. In Qajjenza, there is an oil depot, which is used to supply ships with fuel through bunkering. 

In this facility heavy fuel oil (HFO) is being stored and transported. 

The HFO cannot be transported in its stored form but has to be warmed, thinned and pumped. This operation is being carried out in a facility located less than 200 metres from the residents. During the heating operations toxic fumes are finding their way into the air and inhaled by those who happen to be in the area. 

Policies can be tweaked, decisions revoked, but health and well-being can be irreversibly compromised

Is this not another cancer factory? 

Prior to the 2013 general election, Joseph Muscat was vociferous about the BWSC operation in Delimara, at the time coining the term “cancer factory”.  

Though loosely used, much political capital had been gained by this indictment. So what is different now?

The difference is the size of the chimney and the vicinity of the facility. The BWSC chimney, equipped with adequate scrubbers, was high enough to be seen from most parts of the island. On the other hand the fumes in the facility in Qajjenza are coming out from valves on top of the storage tanks, which are at the same level as surrounding houses. 

We have no idea what filters are in place. What we know is that on particular days residents are complaining of toxic smells and respiratory complications.

This is the government’s fault, not the operator’s. I have lately been informed that the operator, who wishes to invest more in the facility, has not yet obtained a guarantee that he will be operating from the same site, which is rented to him by Enemalta, next year. A businessman will only invest if the investment is recuperated over a number of years. In the current scenario no one blames the operator.

If these issues are not enough, the Birżebbuġa residents and bathers in the popular Pretty Bay have to put up with a phenomenon of dead fish that can often be seen along the bay. Despite undisputed evidence of this occurrence, Environment Minister José Herrera in response to a parliamentary question I put forward insists there is no evidence of this. 

Incredible but true. I invite residents to take pictures and present them to the minister.

The people of Birżebbuġa are being taken for a ride. Policies can be tweaked, decisions revoked, but health and well-being can be irreversibly compromised. 

This is not a case of scaremongering. This is the time for the government to come clean and rectify.

I expect MPs from both sides of the aisle to stand up to this betrayal of Birżebbuġa. Gambling with people’s lives is unacceptable. Let’s start by removing the new cancer factory. 

Hermann Schiavone is a Nationalist MP.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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