The Malta Independent 27 September 2023, Wednesday
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Mepa board approves extending Freeport operations to oil-rig maintenance

Malta Independent Thursday, 3 April 2014, 18:19 Last update: about 10 years ago

The Mepa board today approved, by a sizeable margin of six votes against three, an application to extend the Freeport’s operations to include ‘slight’ maintenance of cranes and oil rigs.

It did this in the face of a determined opposition from the Birzebbuga local council (which had remained rather silent when the LNG gas operation was discussed some days ago) and also the unusual fact that the two MPs in the board – Joe Sammut for Labour and Ryan Callus for the Nationalist Party – voted against.

When the vote was declared, a man who was with the local council delegation shouted that “two weeks ago you approved the gas plant, now, with this you have approved the trigger to set off the bomb”.

The board was discussing an IPPC permit, that is the environmental rules governing the freeport’s operations. While some changes in the conditions regarded some things that were done in the past and which have been corrected, other new conditions widened the conditions regulating the operations to include slight maintenance work on oil rigs and cranes.

On its part, the Freeport officials who spoke explained that sometimes slight maintenance work is carried out on ships berthing at the quays, such as polishing of propellers and hull cleaning.

Also, oil rigs have been seen entering the bay although this is the remit of the port authorities. What the Freeport was asking for regarded eventual slight maintenance work on the oil rigs and cranes as the latter cannot be pulled down and maintained elsewhere.

Carmel Cacopardo on behalf of the local council objected this would turn the Freeport into another dockyard. To this, the Freeport officials reacted harshly, while a local council official asked them what guarantees was the Freeport ready to give that there would be no additional danger.

Mr Cacopardo said the Freeport existed for the transhipment of goods. This is carried out by ships, not by oil rigs. This proposal extended the permit given to the Freeport.

If the freeport wanted to extend the range of its operations, it must submit a new development application and this must be processed according to Mepa’s rules with all due consultations.

Marsaxlokk Harbour is now being subjected to all kinds of development with a new application submitted every week. But the Freeport is in the midst of an entire residential area.

John Grech, from the Birzebbuga Environmental Action Group argued that by no logic can an oil rig be considered as a self-propelled vessel.

Besides, the Freeport has been using the area previously reserved for ro-ro vessels, which is nearest to residences, for the unloading of ships when these could be directed to the part of the Freeport that is furthest away. It is not as if the Freeport is full of ships and there is no placed for the unloading of goods, such as cars. There were only three ships on 26 March, three ships on 27 March and even earlier yesterday.

His association is against the contamination of the sea. It urges people not to scrape anti-fouling paint from boats in the sea when the Freeport is cleaning hulls and polishing propellers.

The past developments may have cleaned the air in the bay but this application could contaminate the bay.

Mr Grech also complained about the noise. People call him at 1am to complain they cannot sleep and on 20 March a ship’s horn was sounded for some 15 seconds at 1.10am.

Edwin Ebejer, a resident, said the noise at night is unbearable, especially from ships berthed next to residences.

This is creeping development: soon there will be spraying and sandblasting done.

And if anything happens to the LNG ship, which goes out of the harbour first – the ship or the oil rig?

The Freeport officials who spoke defended the operations of the Freeport and referred to an Environmental Permitting Committee on which NGOs sit. Safety and environment are insisted upon.

Officials from the Environmental Planning Directorate inside Mepa said spray painting will not be allowed and sandblasting will only be done in the case of cranes and will not be allowed on windy days. Every operation will be preceded by a method statement which requires a Mepa permit.

Mr Grech questioned how much training is being given and he was told the workers did not train in work hours and did not want to train after hours.

Mr Ebejer pointed out the proposed conditions do not speak about the frequency of these maintenance works. Residents already lose sleep because of the freeport’s operations.

When the discussion was being reserved for the board members, board member Matthew Pace asked if the Freeport contributes anything socially to the residents.

That did it. Mr Cacopardo rebutted they did not want charity. The local council officials said Mepa had given them €700,000 but the previous government took it away. The meeting erupted in uproar while a Freeport official said they had collected money from employees to allow the council to buy trees. To this a person with the local council delegation rebutted by asking for relocation money so they could go and live elsewhere.

At the end, apart from the two MPs, the only other negative vote came from Alex Vella.

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