The Malta Independent 23 July 2019, Tuesday

'Elimination of geological investigation is a step backwards from current construction law'

Kevin Schembri Orland Wednesday, 19 June 2019, 19:48 Last update: about 2 months ago

The proposed legal changes in construction laws will eliminate geological studies presently required when excavating and is worse than what currently exists, geologist Peter Gatt told The Malta Independent

The issue lies on the removal of a requirement for geological investigations in cases of excavation works, and the replacement with studies which Gatt describes more as being there to aid the developers with designing the building and the foundations, rather than to understand the geology of the area to protect third-party rights.

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The recent spate of building collapses and construction site injuries forced the government to take action, and resulted in the Prime Minister ordering a temporary freeze to demolition and excavation works. Currently a public consultation is ongoing regarding new construction regulations.

One of the proposals made by the government is that the developer must ensure that a proper structural investigation of the zone that is going to be excavated is carried out through the submission of a Geotechnical Design Report.

The clause in the proposed law reads: “In the case of excavation, before excavation works in the development site start, the developer is required to undertake a structural investigation of the zone that will be excavated. Before excavation works begin, the developer must submit a geotechnical design report to the director responsible for business regulations which includes measures that will be taken to assure that the integrity of the adjoining walls and the adjoined structures as built would not be compromised once works start, and this after a structural appraisal of the affected environment takes place, and must include a geotechnical investigation if the architect deems it necessary.”

However, geologist Peter Gatt argues that the way the law proposes handling the geological aspect makes it worse than the law today. This newsroom contacted him following a number of posts on his Facebook page about the issue.

“The current regulations were good but had some lacunae which needed polishing. The current regulations require a geological investigation if excavation is deeper than 3m. That requirement should be extended to any depth of excavation,” he explains.

“The new proposed regulations require a Geotechnical Design Report. It is a design report, which will address issues like the types of foundations the proposed building would have. This would have nothing to do with third-party property and is irrelevant for them.”

“As regard to a geotechnical investigation, the proposed law reads: ‘...and must include a geotechnical investigation if the architect deems it necessary.’ So now it is no longer obligatory to have a geological investigation, and it will be up to the architect to decide, whether a geotechnical investigation should be carried out. You can be excavating 10m and the architect could decide not to do one now. It can be abused. How competent is the architect to know whether a geological investigation is needed? Architects do not have this competence, so the rights of third-party property have been eroded by this proposal.”

There is also a difference between a geological investigation which no longer features in the new law, and a geotechnical investigation he said. “They have very similar methods, but the geotechnical investigation is intended to assist the developer in designing foundations etc. That in itself is of no relevance to third party property. A geological investigation is about the excavation and hazards that can be caused by excavation.”

“Geotechnical means carrying out tests for the building itself, checking whether the ground is strong enough for the building for example. But the problems we had were connected to excavation, not to the proposed building design. It sounds like a minor difference but the spirit of the law is not being respected, which is the protection of third party property.”

He argues that what should have been done was making geological investigations mandatory in all cases of excavation works. “You can still have rock failures in less than 3m which would bring damage third party property as happened recently.”

Asked why he believes that the geotechnical design report will not be enough to replace a geological investigation, given that it must include measures to ensure the integrity of the adjoining walls and structures, he responded by questioning how the developer or architect would know that measures are needed to ensure the integrity of adjoining walls, if not with a geological investigation? In any case, he continued, “what if rock failure occurs during excavation as happened in one of the recent sites, before any measures could be put in place?”

Gatt also argues that the old law did not specify who would carry out geological investigations, and the natural outcome was that such investigations could have been carried out by people who are not geologists. That was a serious deficiency which is not addressed in the proposed legislation.” There is no definition of a geologist in the new proposed law, he adds.

Gatt is also adamant that Malta needs a National Geological service. “All European countries, including those that achieved independence after us, have established a national geological survey, or service,” he said, while also highlighting that all Mediterranean countries have also. 

“It is part of their state institutions, and such a service looks at the natural resources of that particular country, catalogues them, and advises both the government and private industry on the best way to use those resources. The other aspect of such a service deals with geo-hazards like landslides which happen naturally, and also manmade geo-hazards like excavation. This is where such a service is of relevance to the recent events in Malta, which involved excavation.”

The Geological Service would identify areas in the country that are more prone to geo-hazards if there is excavation, he said, which could be excavation for tunnelling and services as well. From there, he said, the Service would advise what kind of precautions should be made. It should not only have an advisory role, but a regulatory one, where if one wants to excavate in certain areas they would need to take the precautions issued, he explained.

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