NEWS One of the hottest political issues currently being debated in Malta relates to the risk to public safety for residents of southern Malta, particularly of Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia, that is posed by the government’s controversial plan to berth a floating liquefied gas storage unit to feed the Delimara power station so close to shore in Marsaxlokk Bay.
Last Tuesday’s sitting of the Maltese House of Representatives was devoted to a general discussion on the environmental permit for the power station at Delimara to be fuelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), a day after Speaker Dr Anġlu Farrugia had ruled that the Environment and Planning Committee of the House was not empowered to discuss the issue.
Opposition MPs within the committee had requested a discussion on the environmental impact assessment of the new gas-powered plant which is set to be built by the ElectroGas Malta consortium, and their request was supported by committee chairman Marlene Farrugia.
But Ms Farrugia stressed that she could only act upon a written ruling by the Speaker, who ruled that the committee should not and could not discuss the issue once the House Business Committee decided to hold discussion at a plenary stage.
In her intervention during the sitting, Ms Farrugia explained that she believed that the issue should have been discussed in committee as committee discussions would allow experts to contribute, allowing the debate to go beyond partisan arguments.
She said that she would have wanted experts to answer MPs’ questions to ensure that what MEPA ultimately decides on is backed by both sides, before appealing to fellow MPs to show the public that they are capable to agree on such important issues.
Minister insists offshore LNG storage more dangerous
The debate, which lasted three hours, was opened by Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi, who insisted that the Opposition’s criticism of plans to store liquefied natural gas in a tanker in Marsaxlokk Bay was not credible.
He said that despite the PN’s scaremongering, the government gave the highest priority to the health and safety of nearby residents, and said that its proposal to keep the tanker offshore was actually more dangerous. He said that the site suggested by the PN saw heavy maritime traffic, including vessels proceeding at a considerable speed, adding that it was far easier to control maritime activity in Marsaxlokk Bay.
However, the minister also dismissed the PN’s claims that maritime activity in the bay would be affected by the tanker, stating that such activity would not even be affected on the occasions where it is resupplied with LNG.
Dr Mizzi insisted that the PN sought to stop the present government accomplishing what it had failed to do when in government – reduce emissions from electricity generation and lower electricity bills by a quarter.
Opposition reflecting concerns raised by others
In his speech, Opposition deputy leader Dr Mario de Marco said that the PN was not simply speaking on its own, but it was also reflecting the concerns raised by others. He said that, if the government was accusing the opposition of being negative and destructive, it was also tarring, by association, residents of the area, the National Fishing Cooperative, Alternattiva Demokratika and Din l-Art Ħelwa, who had raised similar concerns.
Dr de Marco insisted that the reduction in bills that is taking place this year is not due to the project, but due to other factors, including increased efficiency at Enemalta, the interconnector project and the partial privatisation of the corporation.
He said that the rush in completing the new power plant was not tied to lowering bills, but due to strict timeframes the government imposed on itself because it turned a capital project into a major political issue, an action which, he said, was a grave political error.
Dr de Marco said that the government’s plans to moor an LNG tanker next to the power station raised a number of concerns, pointing out that whenever strong winds lashed the bay, four tugboats were needed to keep ships of a similar size in place at the nearby Freeport.
He said that he welcomed the government’s acceptance that a gas pipeline was the ultimate solution, but said that until this pipeline was set up, caution suggested that the best way forward would be an offshore floating storage and regasification unit.
He concluded by appealing to the government not to rush the project through, and to refrain from submitting an application at MEPA next week.
Health benefits of switching to gas
Government MP and paediatric surgeon Chris Fearne spoke on the health benefits of switching to gas, citing a number of scientific reports on the negative impact of burning heavy fuel oil at Malta’s power stations.
He noted that a recent report by the European Environment Agency estimated that the environmental cost of the Marsa and Delimara power stations was some €120 million a year. He also cited local reports showing that the incidence of asthma was higher in areas which were downwind from the Marsa power station, and which showed that the incidence of foetal deaths due to congenital abnormalities was higher in the areas closest to the power plant.
Opposition cannot stay silent in face of clear danger
Opposition MP and MEPA board member Ryan Callus, whose intervention followed that of Dr Farrugia, noted that he would have wished to ask a number of questions to the experts involved in drawing up the relevant reports, and questioned whether the government had something to hide when it refused to discuss the matter in committee.
He said that the opposition did not want to hinder the project, but it could not remain silent in the face of a clear danger. He said that there was still time for the government to change its plans, noting that while politicians came and went, the effect of their decisions would stay on.
Environment Minister Leo Brincat then argued that the discussion should not be seen in isolation, but in light of the opposition’s “consistent” resistance to switching to gas, and its hysterical comments on the project in recent days.
He noted that while Dr de Marco appealed for unity and calm, his own party appeared to disregard his call.
Marsaxlokk resident Government MP: residents want cleaner air
Government MP Luciano Busuttil – the only MP residing in Marsaxlokk – noted that his intervention would be the most difficult of his career, before making an emotionally charged appeal in favour of switching to gas as soon as possible which earned him applause from his colleagues.
He said that the use of heavy fuel oil meant days in which it was difficult to breathe outside, and which saw his children require inhalers – he held one up in parliament for effect. He pointed out that they did not need inhalers when his family holidayed in Gozo last summer.
Dr Busuttil recognised that according to a survey, 91% of area residents opposed the tanker, although he noted that he was one of many who were not asked to contribute. But he argued that the survey was meaningless – pointing out that he would also want the power station to be removed, if possible – and said that 100% of residents would agree that they would want cleaner air.
Toni Bezzina – the only opposition MP representing the fifth district which includes Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa – stressed that the concerns of residents, fishermen and area businesses, should be listened to. He also asked the government to confirm that a number of bidders had proposed establishing a floating storage and regasification unit more than 10km offshore, only not to be considered by the government.
Offshore unit would have a greater impact on fishermen
Parliamentary Secretary for Planning Michael Farrugia insisted that the governments had no lessons to learn from the opposition, and questioned how certain groups were only speaking up at this stage. He accused representatives of losing bidders for the project of trying to sow doubt.
Dr Farrugia said that an offshore unit would have a greater impact on fishermen, since the buffer area that needed to be established around it would affect their livelihood. He also said that the offshore unit at Livorno – which is often cited as an example to follow by the PN – was a very rare scenario: practically all other tankers were moored close to shore.
Opposition MP and former resources minister George Pullicino stressed that the project consisted of three parts: the power station, the tanker and the regasification unit, which, he said, would cost some €180 million.
In light of this cost, he expressed scepticism about the government’s assertion that the tanker would only be in place for a few years, questioning who would spend so much for such a temporary arrangement.
Busuttil: are experts scaremongering too?
Opposition leader Dr Simon Busuttil stressed that the opposition was stepping in after the government failed to heed the public’s concern, and stressed that the same concerns it raised were also raised by experts, including Dutch expert Hans Pasman.
He noted that Prof. Pasman argued that it would be much safer to place the gas storage facilities out at sea, quoting him as stating that if a leak took place and the gas cloud was ignited – even with a cigarette – it would kill all those caught in the flame and may have a blast effect that would be 50% lethal.
Dr Busuttil also noted that the report prepared by Greek expert Giorgios Papadakis for the Occupational Health and Safety Authority carried a huge disclaimer, as it claimed that there was no risk unless there was an ignition source.
The PN leader questioned the government’s assertion that keeping the ship offshore was more dangerous, noting that the government appeared to be more concerned about risks to the ship than about the risks faced by residents.
He also said that the tanker was in breach of the government’s electoral manifesto, which suggested that LNG would be stored onshore.
Dr Busuttil condemned Labour’s 5th district MPs – with the exception of Marlene Farrugia – for failing to voice their constituents’ concerns in parliament.
He concluded by insisting, as Mr Callus had earlier done, that there was still time for the government to change course.
Debate ends in shouting
Despite the strong divergence in opinion between the two sides, the debate had been largely civil: but this all changed when Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi rounded up discussion.
Dr Mizzi set out to deliver a 20-point reply to the issues raised during the discussion, stating that while the government initially aimed for an onshore gas storage unit, further studies showed that a floating option was more viable as it could simply be towed away when a pipeline was built. He added that the regasification unit cost much less than Mr Pullicino’s estimate, and said that it would provide security of supply should supply to the pipeline be interrupted.
But the minister attracted the ire of the opposition – particularly that of whip David Agius – when he said that residents of Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa were in favour of the project.
Mr Agius started shouting “shame on you,” before raising a point of order to insist that the minister should provide the source of his claim. Parliamentary secretary Michael Farrugia also involved himself in the argument before Dr Mizzi asked Mr Agius to read the environmental impact assessment.
In another point of order, Mr Agius insisted that Dr Mizzi had to place the document he referred to on the table of the house, prompting the minister to state that the opposition was ganging up on him.
Speaker Dr Anġlu Farrugia ultimately agreed with Mr Agius, but made it a point to state that parliament’s attitude was deplorable.
Dr Mizzi continued making his points, and was asked to name the page which included the claim he was making, which he did.
But this failed to satisfy Mr Agius, who noted that the claim in the report was different to the one made by Dr Mizzi, who he accused of lying.
PN MEP Metsola presents petition on issue to European Parliament
A week earlier in a speech given in the European Parliament Maltese MEP Dr Roberta Metsola spoke about the plight of Marsaxlokk residents where she again urged the Government not to rush with its proposal to berth a huge floating gas storage unit in the middle of Marsaxlokk bay, so close to a heavily populated residential area.
Dr Metsola presented her petition, now supported by more than 3,000 people, emphasising that there has not been any maritime impact assessment carried out on the project and underlining that the risk to residents would be greatly mitigated should the tanker be berthed outside the bay, with proper security zones around it.
Dr Metsola said that the project may run contrary to the provisions of the EU’s SEVESO Directive, and that the impact on people’s lives, the environment, businesses, fishermen and their boats has not been properly taken into consideration by the Government.
“Over the past weeks and days I have met with many concerned citizens of the towns and villages that are most affected by this proposed project and they cannot understand why these unnecessary risks are being taken in this manner. In contrast, other EU Member States with similar projects, such as those off the Italian ports of Livorno and Ancona, have ensured that safety is paramount and that the legitimate concerns of residents were addressed by stationing the depot a safe distance away from them, with proper security zones around the vessel. None of the above safety provisions are envisaged in the Maltese Government’s proposed intentions” said MEP Metsola.
Dr Metsola quoted the EU’s SEVESO II Directive which lays down that Member States shall prohibit the use of any establishment, installation or storage facility, where the measures taken by the operator for the prevention and mitigation of major accidents are seriously deficient saying that petitioners were understandably concerned that the project will violate the Directive.
Marsaxlokk bay already houses a concentration of power generation and fuel storage facilities as well as very busy in-bay shipping movements of the Malta Freeport. Only a preliminary Quantitative Risk Assessment has so far been carried out and no Maritime Risk Assessment has been carried out.
“The risks associated with the implementation of the project of conversion of power facilities to gas would be greatly mitigated if the gas storage for this plant be moved to a secure location and a safe distance from residential areas, outside the bay. As the only Maltese Member of the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee I had a duty and a responsibility to act” added Dr Metsola.
“This project runs totally opposite to what is being done by other EU governments that have taken all the necessary precautions with similar projects. An expert in the field recently said that the consequences of a gas leak would be disastrous for Malta and 91% of residents in the area agree with him. There is simply no need to take unnecessary risks and rush things through,” said Dr Metsola.
Concluding, MEP Metsola reiterated her call for the European Commission to investigate any risk to public safety.
[Main source: www.independent.com.mt]
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