Mqabba: a victim of institutional sclerosis

Around twenty years ago, the authority responsible for land use planning, then named MEPA, had published a Minerals Subject Plan for the Maltese Islands. The plan is dated May 2003.

The Subject Plan, as expected, deals with the regulatory framework for mineral extraction, primarily limestone, which was then and still is now, cowboy territory. Regulation is scarce and enforcement in this sector is almost inexistent.

The Subject Plan fired a warning shot in its first lines by pinpointing the inevitable conflicts resulting from the operation of quarries. It emphasises that “in such small and densely populated islands there are inevitable land use conflicts between limestone extraction and tourism, industrial, commercial and residential development, and the preservation of the islands’ natural and cultural resources. Balancing the needs of the construction industry for mineral resources with other planning and environmental policies, in the context of sustainable development is a key challenge for this Mineral Subject Plan and for the day-to-day control of extraction and related activities.”

The Subject Plan considers impacts on third parties. Specifically, it considers the impacts of noise and dust resulting from quarry operations and ancillary activities.

With reference to noise, it states that planning permits will seek to regulate noise impacts through the use of acoustic screening, restricting operating hours, setting of permissible maximum noise levels, locating noisier operations as far as possible from noise sensitive locations and properties and ensuring appropriate stand-off distances between operations and sensitive locations.

On the other hand, the regulation of dust impacts in the said Mineral Subject plan is also fairly detailed in that it is required to site the dust generating activities away from sensitive locations, considering the direction of prevailing winds. Covering of stockpiles is also recommended.

I have an electronic copy of this Subject Plan which I downloaded some time ago from the Planning Authority website. Checking recently, it has apparently mysteriously disappeared: it is no longer accessible on the Planning Authority website! As far as I am aware this Subject Plan is still applicable. When dealing with the Planning Authority, however, one never knows for certain!

All this came to mind when I was recently contacted by a number of Mqabba residents relative to a planning application (PA 0350/22) submitted recently concerning a quarry in the vicinity of the Mqabba Primary School. The application seeks to carry out activities ancillary to quarrying, including crushing and stock piling of stone derived aggregate on site.

Residents, have informed me and Melissa Bagley, party candidate on the electoral district of which Mqabba forms part, that they have been at the receiving end for a long time. As a result, they are reluctant to speak up publicly. ADPD will be taking up their case and speaking on their behalf.

I have gone through the planning application file which is available online and must publicly state that I am shocked at the reactions of the Environmental Health Directorate which fails to make any submissions on the negative impacts of noise and dust generated as a result of quarry operations, and, on the need, to control them through the planning process itself.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), on the other hand, lists a number of conditions to be adhered to in line with best practice environmental measures. It should however be clear that these measures should be an integral part of both an eventual planning permit as well as the standard operational permit issued by ERA itself.

The Department of Education has so far not reacted in order to protect the students at Mqabba Primary School which school almost borders the quarry in question. What is it waiting for to protect Mqabba boys and girls from excessive noise and from continuously inhaling dust particles generated by the quarry operations?

The Mqabba Local Council is also conveniently silent. However, no one is surprised about that.

This is a very serious issue which needs our attention. Quarrying needs adequate regulation and prompt enforcement such that the quality of life of all those in the vicinity is adequately protected.

The silence (or the lack of appropriate action) of the relative public authorities listed above is scandalous. This is institutional sclerosis. When needed most the institutions we have fail to act.

Carmel Cacopardo
ADPD Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 6 November