Updated 2.35pm with council letter 

Activists are calling for the immediate suspension of operations of a tuna recycling plant in Birżebbuġa over an "unbearable stench and sewage leaks".

In a letter to environment minister Miriam Dalli and lands minister Silvio Schembri, Għaqda Storja u Kultura Birżebbuġa and Moviment Graffitti claim that roads in a Birżebbuġa neighbourhood were recently flooded with fish remains and the ensuing stench has made life for residents miserable.

The sewage overflow was reported on Triq San Ġwann, Triq iż-Żibra and Triq San Edwardu, while, as of Friday, the stench is still present in the Pretty Bay area (off the BOV branch), according to the activists. The stench also lingers in the residential area of Triq Tal-Ġebel, they added. 

The opening of the Aquaculture Resources Ltd factory in Ħal Far "has brought about squalid conditions previously inexistent in the neighbourhood", they said in a statement.

They added that while they appreciated the locality's council's efforts to resolve the issue, the action taken by the authorities was insufficient to curb the problems that residents were unjustly facing on a daily basis.

They therefore called for the immediate suspension of the factory's operations, insisting it should only be allowed to operate once it could eradicate the odour pollution it was currently emitting. 

The activists warned they were willing to take further action if their call remained unheeded. 

"The profits of the tuna industry can never come before the health and safety of residents and the environments in which they live.

"This simple and logical call for action must be heard and if it falls on deaf ears, the organisations pledge to take all necessary action to ensure that the health and quality of life of the people are given the priority they deserve."

Council: WSC infrastructure impacted

In a notice published on November 23 and seen by Times of Malta, Birżebbuġa's local council said that the Water Services Corporation seemed to share their concerns. 

"Even the WSC is being inconvenienced and their infrastructure impacted," the council told residents. "They are having to constantly clean, in unhygienic conditions." 

The council said WSC had asked the factory operator to stop dumping liquid waste into the drainage system, and prepare an alternative system of transporting such waste elsewhere using browsers. 

In October, LovinMalta had reported on the stench, however, the company had said that inspections by the Environment and Resources Authority had not traced the foul smell to the plant.

Company reacts

In reaction to the claims, the company’s director Charlon Gouder insisted that all the necessary systems to mitigate smells from the plant had been put in place. 

Gouder said residents in the surrounding areas have an open invitation to visit the plant to verify that things are being done properly.

“It is not true the plant is causing smells. It is not true that tune carcasses are being disposed of. All effluent from the plant is treated water."

Gouder added that the environment regulator ERA carries out regular inspections of the plant to ensure that all processes are being abided by.

How the plant works

Tuna ranchers ship containers of offal in reefer containers to Marsaxlokk, where it is transferred to bins and taken to the Ħal Far facility. There, it is stored in refrigerated conditions for anything between 24 and 60 hours before being processed. 

Processing involves mechanically removing metal contaminants, then treating the offal using steam and water. Water needed is extracted from the water table through a borehole and then processed at an on-site reverse osmosis facility. 

The plant has been designed to process 6,000 tonnes of tuna offal every year, though it is only expected to operate between October and February. Apart from treating offal, it can also store up to 25 tonnes of fish meal, 90 square metres of fish oil and 100 tonnes of processed offal. 

The factory's IPPC permit states that it operates two air treatment units to filter and condense ambient air and that steam used during the processing phase "will be passed through a chemical scrubber". 

An ERA case officer's report assessing the facility application made relatively little reference to the challenge of keeping odours contained. 

In its feedback, the Environmental Health Directorate advised ERA to require applicants to regularly clean the facility, to forbid them from leaving any tuna offal, waste or feed outside and to keep doors of the facility shut at all times to restrict smells.  

The ERA assessor said that the applicants should schedule frequent cleanings and quickly remove rejected material to minimise odours, that effluent lines and gutters should be designed to prevent stagnant water from building up and that packaging materials should be stored "in a way so as not to give rise to odours".

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