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Where ignorance can never be bliss

Enemalta’s operational issues often make headline news for the wrong reasons. This summer, many frustrated business owners as well as ordinary people experienced power cuts the causes of which were never really explained satisfactorily.

The most recent operational failure related to a major breakdown in the new electricity generating plant that was being commissioned in the Delimara power station.

The way this breakdown was made known to the public raises a number of questions that were only partly addressed by the Enemalta management and the Minister of Finance who is politically responsible for the performance of this corporation.

The first time the public became aware that the new power plant at Delimara had a major breakdown was when Labour MP Joe Mizzi was tipped off about the crippling incident and spoke in Parliament where he also tabled a number of photographs to show the extent of the damage.

Enemalta and the Minister of Finance only reacted to this alarming news the day after Mr Mizzi’s declaration in Parliament and 10 days after the first incident at the power station indicated that there was something seriously wrong with the new equipment that was being installed at the plant in Delimara.

Finance Minister Tonio Fenech justified this long delay in informing the public on what was going on by stating that “Enemalta had been careful to be in a position to explain what had happened so that people would not be alarmed”.

When dealing with critical infrastructural services like electricity supply that is the lifeblood of the economy it would be unwise to follow the maxim that “where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise”. The public has a right to be given accurate and clinical explanations on any risk that threatens their livelihood.

Withholding crucial information on serious incidents that could affect the constant availability of essential services like electricity can never be justified on the grounds of protecting the public from undue alarmism.

In a small island the grapevine is very effective at spreading news about incidents that the authorities try to keep wrapped in secrecy. When this happens inaccurate information could spread even more alarm than would be the case if information is relayed objectively by official sources.

The Delimara plant malfunction also gives rise to a number of other concerns.

The business continuity plan that Enemalta decided to implement was the reactivation of the obsolete plant in Marsa. Quite apart from the environmental and financial negative consequences of adopting this plan, one needs to ask whether this solution is sufficient to manage the risk of Enemalta being unable to satisfy in full the demand for electricity in the coming months.

The Minister of Finance reassured the public that this plan would in fact be adequate to guarantee electricity supply. Publishing the official risk assessment results made by independent technical experts would go a long way to putting people’s minds at rest on this critical issue.

The various statements made by Mr Fenech on this incident seem to have been partly motivated by the need to reassure the public that Enemalta and, consequently, the Maltese taxpayer, would not suffer any financial consequences as a result of this incident.

This is understandable but arguably of secondary importance.

The top priority of those managing this serious incident must remain guaranteeing a reliable electricity supply in the coming months as well as the management of any health and safety risks resulting from this incident.

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