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Sand at film shoot sparks outrage

Mepa orders manual clean-up

Heavy machinery at Dwejra, in an area where vehicles are prohibited. Sand used on the site was supposed to have been cleared up manually. Photo: Max Xuereb

Heavy machinery at Dwejra, in an area where vehicles are prohibited. Sand used on the site was supposed to have been cleared up manually. Photo: Max Xuereb

A decision by American filmmakers to lay sand over the rocks at the picturesque Dwejra bay in Gozo has sparked outrage among residents and environmental NGOs who are worried that the protected fossil-rich area may be severely damaged.

Their concerns were heightened when trucks appeared to clean up the sand and the planning authority admitted this was in breach of the permit conditions. Cars are normally strictly prohibited from the site.

The producers of HBO’s mediaeval fantasy series Game of Thrones were given the authority’s green light to shoot in the area and were allowed to use sand under certain conditions. One of them was a bank guarantee of €15,000, which NGOs described as a “ridiculous” amount considering the damage that could be caused.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority last week told The Times it was monitoring the situation closely and if the producers did not return the site to normal, the money would immediately be withdrawn from the bank.

But many residents feel this is not enough and have complained about damage that could have been caused to the rocks by the heavy machinery being used for the clean-up.

They said they had called the Gozo Ministry and were told the producers had to remove the sand using brooms and spades not to damage the fossil bed of the area. Instead they used heavy machinery.

One of the permit conditions was for the rocks to be covered with a layer of plastic sheeting before the sand was spread over it. A resident expressed concern that despite this precaution, the fossil bed may still have sustained damage and called on Mepa to take action.

When contacted, San Lawrenz mayor Noel Formosa said the council had given its go-ahead to the filming, subject to a Mepa permit. He said the council would pay more attention in the future as it had not been aware about the request to cover a large area with sand.

Meanwhile, six environmental NGOs yesterday issued a statement saying they were shocked that Mepa had given the green light for “environmental degradation” to occur at Dwejra, a Natura 2000 site.

Nature Trust, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Ramblers Association, BirdLife Malta and Friends of the Earth said the site was of “geological, geomorphological, botanical and ornithological” importance and was rich in fossil beds.

The area is protected by national and international legislation as well as under the Dwejra Heritage Park Action Plan.

Recent weather conditions also caused the sand to end up in the sea, the NGOs complained, a concern that was also raised by the Professional Diving Schools Association.

Meanwhile, Mepa yesterday issued a press release saying it had ordered that the clean-up operation must continue without any mechanical equipment and it was monitoring the removal.

“Once the manual clearance operation is completed, the authority can thoroughly assess the environmental impact that the initial mechanical clean-up works might have had on the site,” it said.

“Following this assessment, the authority will use the €15,000 bank guarantee imposed in the permit and/or hold the film producer liable for any further environmental damage.” Mepa did not reply to The Times questions asking whether the bank guarantee was not too low. It said that while it always imposed stringent conditions when issuing such permits, the onus was on the film producer to scrupulously abide by these permit conditions.

“In this case the relevant conditions were not fully observed and the authority will be holding the film producer responsible for any damages that might have occurred.”

The images of sand poured over the area resurrected bad memories of the time when aggregate hardstone (used in construction) was poured over, Mġarr ix-Xini, also in Gozo in 2001, creating a white ‘sandy’ beach.

Controversy ensued as it was labelled a “crime against the environment” and a massive clean-up operation took place. When asked, Mepa did not say whether the sand used in Dwejra was aggregate hardstone.

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