Question time
Communication breakthrough melts an icy silence as a call goes through to reception at MEPA. A courteous and helpful voice on the other line meets my furtive call.

Am I a developer ringing to wax planning authority pens and process my timeshare project on indigenous habitat? No.

Am I an aesthetical sort, jangling the telephones at MEPA in aid of pristine landscapes over climate-saving wind turbines? No.

Just a woman, resident of St Julian's, come quite asthmatic of late due to goodness knows what stress or polluting factor. First question: How does an honest citizen go about obtaining information on air quality in this digitally-enlightened era of data, and the right to know in a Maltese environment?

Energy question
Enemalta's climate change and air quality commitments were questioned earlier this month by AD energy spokesman Ralph Cassar. In an e-mail sent on January 5 to the corporation, I repeated the call for specific answers to a number of Mr Cassar's well posed questions (see box).

Two weeks later a reply was still pending. A further question I would like to put to Enemalta is this: Would it be correct to expect that the appointment of an EU Affairs Officer might make Enemalta air quality statistics any more available to the public than at present?

Air question
On September 1, 2005 I sent an e-mail enquiry to the MEPA public relations officer regarding public accessibility of air quality information based on a rather ancient posting on the planning authority's website. The enquiry read:

"The Prevention and Control Unit has a fixed air monitoring network based on diffusion tubes for spatial profiling of air quality. Average monthly readings for Benzene, Toluene, Xylene, Ethyl benzene, SO2, NO2 and Ozone are taken at 31 localities. When will these readings be available to the public on the MEPA Website?"

A reminder was sent on September 28 followed by another reminder on October 19. No reply has yet reached me even though the posting has been updated. In March 2004, the diffusion tube network was upgraded to include 44 localities in Malta and Gozo. How can we access these measurements, as is our right? An answer is expected from MEPA at the authority's earliest convenience.

Bird flu question
Will Government consider the adoption of measures called for by the Malta Greens to prevent the spread of avian flu? AD has asked for the hunting of quail, a potential bird flu carrier, to be banned. As a precaution, given poor enforcement, a total ban on shooting birds out of the sky is certainly not a bad idea. Can the Ministry concerned, whether Health or Rural Affairs, take up the initiative and work this sound proposal into its National Avian Influenza Response Plan.

Are GMOs making people sick?
A Weak and poorly enforced regulatory system has led to the situation where GMO crops are dangerously out of control in Romania.

On January 1, 2007, Romania expects to join the European Union. Conflicts of approach over genetically modified organisms crops may overshadow Romania's accession. Romanian legislation on GMOs is very weak and far away from implementing all existing EU-standards.

The responsible authorities have no means to implement the existing laws, as there are no inspectors to make controls, and not a single certified laboratory to do scientific analysis. This has made it an attractive environment for the biotech multinationals, Romania has the largest area of land cultivated with GE crops in Europe.

Research done by Greenpeace last August on illegal plantings showed that Romania is being invaded by GMOs without any control. The findings of unrecorded fields of genetically modified soya follow previous Greenpeace discoveries of illegal growing of genetially modified insect resistant potatoes.

Interviews with local farmers showed that they were willing to sell farm-saved genetically modified soya seed and that a black market in undeclared growing has developed. Romanian farmers agreed that genetically modified soya cultivation is much more extensive than their government knows about.

Basic legislation lacks in implementation, so the farmers are in the habit of keeping and selling genetically modified, uncertified seeds. Contamination of organic and non-GMO crops would lead to economic losses for farmers if they cannot sell their products.

Serbia and Hungary have both said that Romania is contaminating their GMO-free crops as a result of smuggling. Loss of markets for farmers would result if GMO crops cannot be sold because of market rejection in the rest of Europe. Increased costs and control are expected by agro-biotech companies through systems to restrict seed saving and tie together chemical and seed sales.

Other negative consequences include damage to the environment through harmful effects on the sensitive Romanian flora of the broad-spectrum weed killers used with many GMO crops.

The potential for eco-tourism and the livelihoods of increasing numbers of organic farmers may be harmed. Another serious problem identified relates to Romania's accession to the EU and the conditions that will have to be fulfilled in relation to traceability, labelling and marketing approval.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready genetically modified soya planted in Romania is not approved for growing in the EU. The absence of control measures means that Romania may be unable to harmonise with the EU and its agricultural exports may be banned from EU markets altogether.

Greenpeace has asked that the Romanian government meet the demands of the EU market by immediately stopping all planting of Roundup Ready Soya to stop uncontrolled dispersal into the environment and food chain.

A labelling system that requires traceability of all seeds or commodities that are GMOs or contain their derivatives must be put in place this year. The Government must provide support for organic farming, by stimulating demand for organic food through education, public procurement policies and by providing economic incentives.

In Malta we have a similar history of weak enforcement. Wouldn't it just be simpler to go GMO-free? Instead of spending money on control systems we could invest in organic agriculture and better health for people and plants.

In everyone's backyard
A Tide of revulsion has reared up over the devious dealings surrounding Ta' Cenc. A flood of objections from Malta, Gozo and overseas has been filed with the Sannat council and MEPA following the extension of the deadline for comments foothold gained by AD.

They may not be in Parliament but who else is there to resist the golf course threat other than the Green Party? A young girl from Gozo gave her view on TVM's Bondiplus about the developers of the massive building project proposed for the unspoilt clifftop area: "I think that what they do is vandalism." Her innocent decree rings truth through the halls of destruction.

Personally speaking...

Let me count myself among the blessed amid all my sorrows. What bad luck, I thought, to come down with a debilitating sniffle on the eve of the first public forum on genetically modified organisms in Malta.

A call from a friend enquiring after my health since going missing at the seminar cracked open the news that the event ended badly. Both environmentalists and MEPA employees came down with serious food poisoning.

I extend my earnest concern to all who were affected by the outbreak. An e-mail has been sent to the Health Inspectorate to urge and confirm that a full and serious investigation is under way to prevent future unpleasantness and danger, not to mention the terrible impact on the tourism industry of such episodes.

Most ills boil down to one or two things. If not a case of despicable greed then it can only be miserable ignorance on the part of the operators. Full responsibility must be assumed by the management to ensure that prevention practices are followed without fail and to the letter.

In a swift response Principal Health Inspector Sandro Sammut gave his assurance that the Department of Public Health, through the Disease Surveillance Unit and its Health Inspectorate Services, investigates all notified food poisonings. He was unable to divulge further details due to the sensitivity of the information.

AD quizzes Enemalta

1. Our power plants still do not comply with EU standards even though the 2005 deadline now passed. What will happen next? Are we to expect a reasoned opinion or warning from Brussels? What measures are needed to avoid this?

2. The derogation Malta obtained regarding particulate emissions from power plants has expired. What are the obstacles to this directive being met? What steps have been taken or are planned for the future in order to comply?

3. Enemalta is supposed to keep an inventory of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and dust particles emitted from its power plants. How often are measurements of these emissions taken?

4. This information is supposed to be freely accessible to the public according to international and EU "right-to-know" conventions. Where and how can this inventory be accessed by the public?

5. It is not unheard of for Enemalta to "flush" tonnes of black soot under cover of darkness at night or early in the morning. Is this stack-blowing unavoidable? Is air quality in the locality monitored for particulates during incidents of stack-blowing by Enemalta or any other authority?

6. When will Malta comply with the directive regulating particulate emissions? How can this directive be met when the Delimara Power Station is not even fitted with precipitators?

7. Is NOx Nitrous Oxide from Marsa and Delimara power stations within EU limits?

8.Marsa power station was meant to comply with EU standards by accession or close down. Does it comply?

razammit@hotmail.com

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