The Malta Independent 16 December 2019, Monday

Two studies on land reclamation to be presented to the government

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 20 October 2019, 11:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

There is more than enough space to deal with construction waste, Environment Minister Jose Herrera told Kevin Schembri Orland during an interview. He also highlighted the potential moves his Ministry will make to ensure that disused quarries with certain obligations to receive construction waste honour those obligations. During the interview, he also spoke about the price of electric cars and, separately, said that he will be presenting two studies to the government on the subject of land reclamation, highlighting potential areas where such work can take place whilst also stressing that the emphasis on these projects will be the environment.

On what upcoming major projects is your Ministry currently working?

One major aspect is definitely the circular economy. My Ministry strives to continue changing our economy from a linear one to a circular one. This year saw the introduction of certain measures and more will be introduced next year.

Firstly, we will finalise the beverage container refund scheme, secondly, we will issue the relative tenders for the Waste-to-Energy plant and thirdly, we will launch two facilities: one focussing on the recycling of bulky waste and the other on the Material Recovery Facility. 

We will also issue the Circular Economy Act, which will go beyond making it compulsory to take out the correct bag on the right day, but also to separate waste. We will also include the separation of commercial waste. 

Other important projects revolve around minimising plastic waste. Aside from the beverage container refund scheme we will take drastic measures to phase out single-use plastics. In my opinion, plastic is the number one culprit damaging the environment, and if we manage to control plastic waste it would be a very good thing for Malta.

We are also working on emissions. Emissions from the power station have basically been resolved, following the switch to LNG. When it comes to the rest we are a bit weak, and the main culprit is carbon which comes out of our vehicles. We are tackling this and will soon fix a date regarding the move to eco-friendly vehicles and start to transition to non-polluting vehicles. 

I also want to start an afforestation blitz. I want to increase my efforts when it comes to afforestation in natural capital areas and greening in urban areas. In the coming weeks, I will launch the restructuring of Ambjent Malta. It will be the right tool to promote afforestation, urban greening and the rehabilitation of our countryside: cleaning it up, repairing rubble walls and waterways, etc.

 It is going to become an agency. Infrastructure Malta and Heritage Malta are agencies and can push things through, and I want it to be able to push through environmental projects without too much bureaucracy and be able to fast-track them. 

We have also started, and will continue to implement, the Natura 2000 sites plans and we will hopefully finalise the management plans for the marine conservation areas by the end of the year.

This year, we will be presenting two studies in relation to land reclamation. The first will deal with the environmental aspect: to identify sites where potential land reclamation can take place with the least – and preferably no – environmental impact. So areas on which such work would result in a major environmental impact will be excluded. This also does not mean that all identified sites will see land reclamation.

The second study will launch an exercise to see what projects can be carried out on identified sites, and then detailed studies on all the sites will be carried out. What is certain is that from our Ministry, and from the government, the main aim of these projects will be environmental. This does not mean that the project won’t have a commercial element to them, but the emphasis on these projects would be environmental.

 

Photos Alenka Falzon

The Minister mentioned some potential ideas, including a possible extension of a piece of land which can be converted into natural capital, like a promenade extension with trees, and where there would be a yacht marina it would be done in an environmentally friendly way where we could extend an area to make greenery.

Rest assured that the fact that this idea is being pushed through the Environment Ministry is a good thing as it shows goodwill from the government and that if there is such reclamation, the priority will be the environment.

I prefer gobbling up a bit of sea than touching ODZ land. If I don’t have a place to make more greenery because we are stuck – and we are not there yet – I would prefer taking from the sea than doing nothing at all. And here I am talking about areas where the seabed is already degraded!

We are a country of 320 square kilometres. Small countries like Singapore, Dubai and the Netherlands are larger than us but are considering it. Even the UK has done it. So are we the only country not talking about it? We have been doing it in an unregulated manner: for example the Freeport is all on reclaimed land and so is most of Msida, so why should I be censored from discussing it? If I don't discuss it, it will be discussed by a different Ministry tomorrow or the next day and it has been on the books for the past 20 years.  We had better get ahead of a crisis.

 

You said that the Waste-to-Energy plant will be going ahead. The idea was to build it in the Maghtab area but there were some concerns as to the location – mainly health-related.

 

Malta is a beautiful country but is just 320 square kilometres in area. Wherever you have a waste management-related investment, you will find people who complain, which is fair enough: nobody would be happy having a waste treatment or a waste-to-energy plant in their area.

The operational landfill – the biggest we have ever had – is situated there. Strategically, it does not make sense to have a similar plant anywhere else as the material is over there. What are we going to do, run around the whole island with trucks when the material is there? Otherwise we would need to create another massive base elsewhere, which does not make sense.

We took the advice of experts, and a committee of experts and NGOs was set up and their recommendation is for that site. It also needs to be vetted by the Planning Authority and the Environment and Resources Authority. 

The landfill already creates an inconvenience, and what this plant will do is mitigate it – not increase it. It will be mitigated because 25 percent of the investment will be for a structure and mechanisms that will capture the carbon and other emissions. Waste-to-energy plants today are not the same as they were in the 1970s and 80s. Over the past 20 years, technology has improved to the extent that such plants capture the particulate matter, the emissions. There are also strict laws and regulations you have to adhere to that continuously monitor these kinds of emissions.

This plant will deal with 35 per cent of our domestic waste, not more, so that we will be in line with EU Directives. Through the separation of waste measures that we are implementing, the volume of black bag waste will continue to reduce. So we will deal with the majority of waste by separating it and the waste which we cannot separate will be incinerated and turned into energy.

 

Is there a health concern for the Maghtab, Gharghur, Naxxar and St Paul's Bay residents?

Wherever there is a landfill it is an annoyance and a health hazard due to the methane gas and carbon being emitted, etc. What we are doing will mitigate everything but will not be a health hazard as we are going to take the necessary precautions. Every country in the world is using incineration – countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the northern countries. They are very good at waste separation, and what is left is incinerated. What should we do instead, put it in landfills?  What other option is there, and where could I put it? I am not going to put it in an area where there is no landfill. There is nowhere else to put it. If we had an area of 5,000 square kilometres with our population, then we would have no issue. 

Don’t forget that we have a population equivalent to that of Montenegro which has an area of 10,000 square kilometres. In addition we are an island, so anything we cannot really get rid of we are stuck with.

 

There has been a lot of concern about construction waste and the situation has been getting worse. The government has been exploring the possibility of using areas where such waste can be dumped: have you found any yet?

There are more than 140 quarries. Some of them are huge, almost 100 tumuli. To say that there is no space left to take the material is the biggest lie ever. There is more than enough space to cater for it.

In addition, those sites need to be rehabilitated. They cover wide territory, some of them are in the countryside, in Natura 2000 sites and they need to be rehabilitated. There is no way that I, as Minister for the Environment, will condone or agree with having these areas developed and turned into urban areas. I will oppose it with my last breath, as it would mean the end of our countryside. 

When it comes to taking in construction waste, we have resistance along different lines. Some of the quarry owners are teaming up with developers, thus limiting who can dump construction waste there. There are others who have permit issues and other infringements and so cannot accept waste until such infringements are settled. Others don’t want to take material either because they are waiting for prices to rise or because they want to further develop their quarries.

This has created a price hike which is greatly affecting the industry. The only thing I can do is use the powers that I have to take over a number of quarries in terms of taking the volume and running them myself. How, I have not yet decided. The owners will be compensated with the going price and can contest it before a magistrate and I will provide enough volume for the construction industry. There is no other way. I made a number of agreements with these people, but every time we come to an agreement it falls through.

 

Do I understand correctly, that this will include expropriation?

Not exactly. Expropriation is taking over the title, the land. The land will still belong to the owners. I would operate – and make the owners abide by – a licence that says they need to take construction waste. If they are not doing so, then I will ensure that the construction waste does go there because it is included in the terms of the licence, and the owners will get the money for the construction waste. When the quarry is full again, or when I have taken the amount I need, the owners will remain the title holders. They have obligations to fill and they are not doing so.

 

The move towards non-polluting vehicles is undoubtedly a good one. But some people are concerned about the price of such vehicles being higher than regular ones. 

First of all, I appointed a Commission with MEP Miriam Dalli as Chair. I know what the situation is because I have a team of experts and they are briefing me on a weekly basis. The most common opinion now is that there will be conversion on the prices within three to four years.

The technology is there, the demand for electric vehicles is increasing and therefore the prices are evening out. 

What we can do until this happens is offer certain incentives for people to choose such types of vehicles, so that they will realise that while such vehicles are currently more expensive, they will not pay for registration, for example, and would receive a subsidised electricity charging rate. The Prime Minister does not like penalising members of the public, so a person who has a normal car will not be penalised.

It is not enough to make a deadline regarding the use traditional cars, but it is important to encourage people who have traditional cars to start getting rid of them early as Maltese people tend to keep their cars for many years and that is what we want to achieve by the cut-off date.

 

There are people arguing that Malta has to move towards a mass transportation system...

The Government is not against a mass transport system but studies need to be carried out regarding economies of scale and feasibility.

 

The bottle container refund scheme is being run by a consortium. Who is in this consortium?

It consists of all the main players. We issued a public consultation, highlighting the fact that we intended to launch this scheme, with the idea to get the standards out there, etc. But then the producers wanted to get involved, as it was a situation where either they would do it or we would.

They became involved in discussions with the Ministry. We told them that they were not the only players and that we needed to involve all the players. Eventually, we signed an Memorandum of Understanding in December, whereby the producers, importers, and retailers – the three main organisations responsible for putting these products on the market – came together, formed an organisation and now the government is in direct discussions with them. It is a non-profit organisation, so all the money involved will be included in the running of the system. There are strict targets that need to be achieved.

  

The Malta Independent ran a story some time ago regarding the fact that Malcolm Scerri, the business partner of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, wanted to be involved in the plastic bottle return system and that Scerri, through Acumen Projects Ltd – a company that he solely owned and directed at the time – is the Malta representative of Tomra, a Norwegian multinational recycling solutions corporation. Is Acumen Projects Ltd involved? Among other things, it was reported that once the project and tender get off the ground, it will be tailor-made for Acumen to snap up.

We replied to that and categorically denied the allegations contained in that story. I have no idea if it is involved or not. I am not involved myself. Even if it was, it is not an issue of the Ministry as the producers, importers and retailers took the onus onto themselves to carry this work. 

We cannot say that they cannot meet this or that person. The consortium is making the investment. The government has no relationship with any of the contractors or individuals, etc. I myself have never had any meetings or dealings with a private company about this scheme and the intention of this company importing machines. I had no meeting with them. I do not exclude anybody from applying but I myself have never been involved.

 

Part of the Regional Road is going to be roofed over to create an open area for Santa Venera. The government has been working on a number of open spaces, but greenery is sometimes missing in these areas.

Traditionally, the Maltese had nice squares in front of their churches, but urban greening was not our tradition because a person could just leave the village and find it. That was the Malta of the 1960s and 70s. We were a rural country with so many agricultural areas that it just did not make sense and was not a priority. Today things are the other way round. 

This project is completely different. It is based on my principle of what I am calling ‘recycling land’. This is how we can save our natural capital. Sometimes the State, out of necessity, has to take a piece of ODZ land. If I need to pass a road, I need to do that. If I need to extend a landfill, I need to do that. There are some things you just have to do, but you can compensate by giving back territory.

For example, you can find a degraded area and rehabilitate it: the classical examples being 100 tumoli in Benghajsa and 100 tumoli in Wied Fulija. This Regional Road project is around 80 tumoli of land, with fumes rising and noise pollution causing misery for the Santa Venera residents. They do not have any open spaces. We are not just creating a square out of available land, we are creating land out of nothing. 

It is going to be a green belt in the middle of Santa Venera and the project will cost more than €20 million.

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