Should the Malta Environment and Planning Authority permit the building of a residential tourist island offshore if it helps solve our waste problem?

Would environment groups tolerate the burying of natural coastline under mounds of rubble to sell off prime seaside property by the slice?

Buildings are being torn down for redevelopment at such a rate that quarries used to store the debris will be gone in just a few years. Disposing of the debris can bring huge real estate spin-offs. The private sector is being invited to extend the coastline or engineer underwater mountains capped with apartments, hotel, casino and marina - anything to cover the cost of reclaiming land at sea with waste stone.

High value money-spinners are preferred over industrial uses such as wind farms or cement plants. Any land reclamation project would have to be stable enough to withstand constant wave action and take into account sea surges due to climate change. An artificial island in deep water would be the most expensive to build. But the environmental cost of infilling shallow waters close to land cannot be lightly swept aside.

Attempts so far to reduce, reuse and recycle stone waste have not received enough backing. A working party under the Building Industry Consultative Council within the Ministry of Resources and Infrastructure was meant to put targets for reducing stone waste into action. The promised research into recycling methods for building waste never got off the ground in any sort of practical way.

Giving a higher value to stone would deter operators from throwing away good material that could be reused. Efforts to deviate stone waste away from disposal in quarries or dumping at sea have failed because the price is not right. In the wake of World War II the British disposed of rubble from bombed buildings at a maritime dumpsite off Grand Harbour. Years later stone waste from the Hilton, Midi and Excelsior projects went to the same graveyard. Tipping of demolition waste at sea continues as demolition rubble at Ricasoli clouds the waters with stone dust to make way for Smart City.

According to Mepa the marine dump is regulated under the Environment Protection Act. The authors of a land reclamation study available on the planning authority's Website say that the environmental implications of dumping offshore had not been properly examined.

The Carl Bros International report was commissioned to identify areas around the coastline where large amounts of inert waste material could form valuable new land areas. Claiming the need for further marine studies, the consultants shied away from a final choice after narrowing it down to two locations. Four potential sites were ruled out because of their impact on scenic beauty, habitats and fish farming.

By elimination the two contenders for an offshoot island or coastal extension are adjacent to Smart City and Magħtab Park. A clear disadvantage at Magħtab is the "significant visual impact on relatively unexploited coastline" described in the study.

Depositing material close to shore is likely to cause more damage to habitats than further offshore. Shoreline extension would be economically cheaper than building an island in deep water but the environmental cost is greater in shallow water less than 50 metres.

All our coastlines are ecologically sensitive with rare species, some recorded even inside industrial harbours. The report highlights the need to include more marine conservation areas beyond those already proposed. Updating of environmental data is needed if the island-building decision is to be a well informed one. EU funds may contribute to further studies.

International conventions on dumping at sea would be broken if damage by the works to the marine environment is too high. Smothering the seabed would be worst at construction phase. Clogging of fish gills leads to increased infertility. The report urges "careful controls" to prevent contamination to coastal waters during construction. Monitoring obligations under the EU Water Framework Directive would apply.

A perimeter structure would help prevent contamination by non-inert or hazardous waste accidentally mixed with the stone. An island of around seven hectares, made from seven million cubic metres of material at a depth of 100 metres could take around six years to construct. Using the same material at a depth of 30 metres would increase the surface area to 25 hectares offering more area for development but a more damaging footprint.

It has been made clear that reclamation of land or sea "cannot and shall not be seen as a permanent solution to lack of disposal capacity for inert waste". The consultants strongly recommend reduction of waste. Above all the study calls for an investigation into whether or not the residential and tourism sectors already have a surplus capacity before expanding the territory.

A further study by Scott Wilson Ltd, made public at a workshop last September, has laid bare that waste management and property development actually have contrasting objectives.

A deep-water longer term option off Ricasoli, less harmful than the shallow water site at Maghtab, will not suit those investors who have their eye on a quick-to-medium return.

Reclamation may yet offer some solution to our stone waste dilemma in the absence of reduction measures at source. Underwater artificial reefs built from contained waste, with enough clearance for shipping, are still debatable. Without real estate spin-offs they are not attractive enough for the private sector to consider the necessary outlay.

Importing infill material to dump on our seabed will lead to nothing less than a shipwrecked goalpost. Losing sight of the strategy for our stone waste will be the sure sign of a public-private partnership bedazzled by island projects Dubai style. Not so smart.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us