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‘Total elimination of ecosystem’ at Dwejra

‘Malta needs to grow up’

An environment management expert has called for heads to roll over the “environmental crime” committed at Dwejra where a sand-like substance made from powdered hard stone was coated over the protected fossil-rich site for filming of a TV series.

“I imagined a disaster at Dwejra but not as large as your photos show.

“It almost gave me a heart attack,” Alfred E. Baldacchino said after seeing fresh photos taken on Monday of the ongoing clean-up process.

Mr Baldacchino, a former assistant director in charge of biodiversity within the Environment Protection Directorate of the planning authority, believes the person who signed the contract for the filming to take place should resign immediately.

He said the photos showed the “total elimination of the ecosystem”, adding that the living species beneath the sand stood “no chance” of survival. The clean up process, he added, would also mean the elimination of the characteristics of their micro-habitat.

It was “atrocious and irresponsible”, he argued, for the Malta Environment and Planning Auth­or­ity to have issued a permit on a site it was meant to protect under EU law.

Although the producers, of HBO’s Game of Thrones, were first slammed for using heavy machinery and were asked to remove the sand with brooms and spades to minimise the damage, Mr Baldacchino believes the laying of the sand was “the fatal blow”.

“It obliterated the micro habitat of all the species in that area, whether flora or fauna. As you can see from the photos some of the thickness of the send is close to a metre.”

He said Mepa would now go down in the history books as having contributed to the elimination of the micro-habitat of endemic species (species found only in that area).

Mepa, he added, should have made an appropriate assessment of the impact of the activity on the site and also opened it to public consultation.

“The permit could not, and should not, have been issued,” he said, adding the site could never be restored to its former state. “If it were an egg, it is now an omelette.”

The incident, he said, demonstrated the need to separate the Environment Directorate from the Planning Directorate.

“What happened shows that either the Planning Directorate overruled or ignored the Environment Directorate or else the Environment Directorate succumbed to inner or outer pressure, infringing the Habitats Directive and the national legislation in the process so that Mepa could issue a permit.”

Mr Baldacchino said he hoped the European Union Environment Director General would look into this environmental disaster, which occurred in a Natura 2000 site, so it could show Malta the proper way to honour, administer, monitor and enforce EU legislation.

“Malta desperately needs to grow up,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, a Mepa spokesman reiterated it would only be able to assess the damage once the clean-up was complete. He added the slow manual clean-up operation was taking longer because in certain parts the sand had “solidified”.

The spokesman said it was monitoring the operation and pointed out that the imposed bank guarantee of €15,000 did not preclude the authority from holding the film producer liable for further environmental damage once the assessment was carried out.

Asked whether Mepa regretted issuing the permit or imposing such a small bank guarantee, the spokesman simply said this was not the first permit the authority had issued for filming to take place in cultural and natural sites.

“The issuing of such permits has been going on for a number of years whereby the authority has always imposed stringent conditions in such permits to prevent any foreseeable damage to these sites.”

What was definitely clear, he said, was that it was incumbent on the film producer to scrupulously abide by the permit conditions. In this case, the relevant conditions were not fully observed and the authority would be holding the film producer responsible for any damages that might have occurred after the clean-up operation was completed and the assessment carried out.

The manual clean-up operation began two weeks ago and is still far from complete.

Mepa has argued that the producers were to blame for not informing them they were going to cast sand over the protected land so that Mepa could send monitoring officers.

Fire & Blood Productions has apologised for the distress caused but blamed the subcontractor it hired for not adhering to established conditions in the clean-up process to remove sand it had strewn on the protected site.

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