The toxic gas that contaminated the planning authority's Marsa offices last Monday may have leaked from a nearby oil recycling facility, according to the locality's mayor.

An indignant Francis Debono said the Malta Environment and Planning Authority had known about the contaminated air in the area for years but persisted in ignoring the local council's reports.

"Those who sowed the seeds of the problem when they issued a permit for the construction of a waste oil recycling facility are now reaping some of the hardship residents have had to endure for more than a decade," Mr Debono said. The mayor called for an independent investigation into the matter saying he could not trust the authority.

"For years, Mepa ignored the council's reports.

"There are also reports lodged with the Valletta police.

"I could not believe it when Mepa initially said the foul air was an act of sabotage since residents, Go employees and former HSBC workers had long been suffering the consequences.

"I expect an independent inquiry into the matter," he said.

The mayor's words were confirmed by a member of the planning authority's health and safety committee, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"There had been complaints filed with the authority both from HSBC and former Maltacom (now Go) employees," the committee member said.

Ronnie Vella, president of a house union representing technical and clerical staff at Mepa, said last Friday the management had known about the toxic odours back in September and, as a precaution, pregnant employees were transferred to work at the head office in Floriana.

Despite the complaints, however, Mepa found nothing out of the ordinary over the years and even went ahead and bought the building for a tidy €4.2 million when HSBC employees, who worked there before, repeatedly complained about a regular foul smell.

Spencer Hill is home to two oil-related facilities. Mediterranean Oil Bunkering Company operates an oil storage facility for bunkering purposes while Falzon Service Station runs a waste oil recycling facility.

According to Mr Debono, when Mepa had issued the permit for the recycling facility it had imposed a number of conditions including the regular monitoring of air quality in the area.

"I would like Mepa to publicly state whether it ever carried out any monitoring and, if it did, I would like it to publish the results. The problems with toxic gases like those that forced the evacuation of Hexagon House on Monday started around the time when the oil recycling facility started operating," Mr Debono said.

On Wednesday, two days after the incident, Mepa confirmed that the gas was toxic hydrogen sulphide. It even described it as "dangerous".

Employees felt sick from the smell and at least one female employee was kept in hospital overnight for observation.

The authority had said the gas seeped back into the building's sewage system from the connection with the public sewers at the entrance to the building. It eventually ruled out foul play.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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