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What lies beneath

For the sake of consistency and clarity, I am compelled to reply to Ray Bondin's latest article (March 4) wherein he wrote about the proposed embellishment and (now abandoned) plans for the underground car park in St George's Square, Valletta.

As much as it is not in my style, I am also compelled to divulge the contents of private exchanges I had on the subject with Dr Bondin over the past months.

In his latest contribution, Dr Bondin speaks about the tunnels found under the square as if they were known to everyone. Quoting directly he declares: "This tunnel was known to everyone."

Some clarifications are very much in order.

Firstly, the government never said that this tunnel was unknown, but it was not known to the extent that it was discovered lately. A press release issued by my ministry (DOI press release no. 339, issued on February 27) states unequivocally that the ministry was aware of the tunnel but information provided by Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar led the ministry to commence further investigations into this tunnel and this led to the uncovering of the passages. May I point out that, to date, the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee's discovery has not been mentioned in any archives or existing documentation. This was also confirmed to us by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (SCH) and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority's Integrated Heritage Management Unit (IHM).

A second observation which comes to mind is, given Dr Bondin's certainty on the existence of what was found, what led him to suggest (The Times, February 13) that the underground digging be extended to two more floors besides the one that was intended for the car park.

Thirdly, what stopped Dr Bondin from informing the relevant officials of his "certain" knowledge without any delays? May I point out that, as board member of the cultural heritage advisory committee, Dr Bondin had the right ambience to come forward and reveal to the public his knowledge on these tunnels. But in the two instances that the Mepa application PA 2112/08 was seen by this advisory board (meeting 349 on July 29, 2008, and meeting 383 on November 10, 2008), the minutes just confirmed agreement with the memorandum set out by the IHM.

Lastly, in view of Dr Bondin's declared certainty on what lay beneath St George's Square, why did he suggest the underground car park in St George's Square as the first in a list of "environment-improving projects in Valletta" that he submitted to my attention in a "brief memo" which he e-mailed to me on April 16, 2008?

I also called him to a meeting with me to have his opinion.

He tried to convince us that once a car park was going to be built it made little sense that it would only consist of one storey, but that it should go down to three levels. I told him straightaway that I disagreed with this for various reasons.

With regard to Dr Bondin's allegations about the research and investigations carried out, may I point out to him that we were very diligent and meticulous throughout the whole process, which is being carried out under the constant supervision of the SCH and IHM. The site was subjected to different tiers of studies, which included non-invasive, slightly-invasive and invasive testing.

The non-invasive testing included the radar scanning of specific sites within the square. This was followed up by the slightly-invasive methods that included the drilling of five small cores, with a four-inch diameter. After consultations with SCH and Mepa's IHM, it was also decided to go for the invasive techniques, which meant that two trenches were dug in the square and enabled us to investigate further. The invasive testing also included the removal of the blocked passageways in the aforementioned tunnel beneath the square and which, ultimately, resulted in the discovery.

I wished, and have so far managed, to stay out of the controversy because it is my policy to let the experts do their work. However, it would be highly irresponsible of anyone to allege that not all precautions were taken before embarking on the project. The developments and ultimate conclusions are the best proofs that no stone was left unturned in the defence of our heritage and capital city.

Mr Pullicino is Minister for Resources and Rural Affairs.

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