Leading environmental NGOs not consulted on Hal Far race track

The government’s track record with noise regulation has made it difficult to trust that the Ħal Far racetrack project will be taking the same matters seriously, co-founder of leading local environmental NGO Flimkien Għal-Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) Astrid Vella told The Shift.

This newsroom contacted Malta’s leading environmental NGOs after several parliamentary questions made to Sports Minister Clifton Grima about the racetrack were met with ambiguous replies.

The Shift found that Malta’s leading environmental NGOs have not been consulted on the Ħal Far racetrack project, despite the minister boasting in parliament that the project is being done with continuous consultation with all stakeholders and despite the numerous concerns raised since its announcement by Prime Minister Robert Abela in September.

The concerns include the impact of noise pollution on nearby towns and the Ħal Far Open Centres, as well as the impact of the race track and a relocated airstrip – moved because of the project – on a neighbouring Natura 2000 site.

One parliamentary question posed to Grima specifically asked whether environmental groups and NGOs had been consulted about the project and, if so, what concerns were raised, especially when considering that the site is “less than one kilometre away from sites of ecological importance”.

Grima dodged the question, replying to six direct parliamentary questions with one indirect answer that the track will be “on par with international standards, carried out with diligence and in total and continuous consultation with all stakeholders and from which everyone will benefit”.

“The plans for this track were in-depth, with a lot of thought, and even consultation,” he added.

Yet despite the ministry’s claims of thoroughness, The Shift can confirm that leading NGOs BirdLife Malta, Din L-Art Ħelwa and Flimkien Għal- Ambjent Ahjar (FAA) were not included in the consultation.

The project will be funded by proceeds from Malta’s controversial passport scheme.

‘How could one have any faith in promises of noise regulation?’

Speaking to The Shift, Vella questioned how Maltese citizens could have any faith in the government’s promises on noise regulation with the project, despite its plans for “sound mitigation measures”, especially when looking at the government’s track record on noise regulation matters.

“In Malta, we have a track record of ignoring EU noise and air pollution regulations, even where it is possible to impose them, such as at the Attard/Rabat night spots and the Palumbo shipyard, not to mention the recent flouting of noise regulations in Valletta,” Vella noted.

“Not even the much smaller Valletta open-air theatre that was to be soundproofed by no less than Renzo Piano has proven to be so, therefore it is highly unlikely that the far more widespread activity of a racetrack will be soundproofed as has been claimed,” she said.

Vella pointed out that in leading international race tracks, noise ranges from 95db to 105db, compared to the normal EU limit of 65db,  in spite of their state-of-the-art installations.

In January, Malta Today reported that the government’s designated consultants on the project, ADI consultants, had even advised the government to relocate refugees living around the track due to noise pollution. Vella also raised concerns about the residents in the neighbouring towns.

“Birżebbuġa residents also suffer from being on the airport flight path, therefore, locating a racetrack just 1,500m away is a clear environmental injustice to its residents,” she said, raising concerns about the hamlet adjacent to Ħal Far.

Malta Racetrack Zoning Plan from the Consultation Report.

‘A monument to fossil fuels’

Vella noted how the racetrack “diametrically undermines” Malta’s commitment to reduce vehicle emissions to meet its climate change targets. “It is clear that, as in other matters, this government is prepared to ignore its commitments to meet climate change targets and especially to protect residents’ quality of life, in order to gain votes and power,” she said.

Executive President of Din L-Art Ħelwa Alex Torpiano echoed Vella’s concerns that the project jars with climate change targets. He told The Shift that he is “perplexed” by the project.

“At the same time that there is a continent-wide commitment to electric vehicles to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, and Malta has obtained over €110 million funds to subsidise the transition to an electric vehicular fleet, this is a proposal to invest €20 million on a monument to fossil fuels, with a promise that the costs will be recovered ‘in the long run’ –  presumably way after fossil fuels are completely phased out,” he said.

Torpiano also raised the issue of land use. “The government seems to have 80,000 sqm of land – which is not agricultural – when, other statements refer to the shortage of land for, for example, industrial facilities… land is surely at a premium, in Malta, to the extent that we have to consider land reclamation,” he noted.

‘Cumulative degradation of the area for habitats’

The development of the race track will cause changes to activities held at Ħal Far – one of them could be the relocation of an airstrip for model aircraft which is planned on a stretch of land off Wied Znuber, close to a Natura 2000 site.

A spokesperson for BirdLife Malta told The Shift that such a development would be particularly concerning for two seabird species – the Yelkouan and Scopoli’s Shearwaters – that nest at the cliffs and are one of the reasons why the cliffs are protected as a Natura 2000 site.

“The sensitivity of the Natura 2000 sites in proximity to the development, if it is held in Ħal Far, cannot be ignored or underestimated. The mushrooming of the Ħal Far Industrial Estate, the development of the Malta Freeport, and the continued speculation of these areas (from solar farms to also quarries proposed in past months) are all causing a cumulative degradation of the area – something which continues making the cliff habitats incompatible with being adequate seabird colonies,” BirdLife Malta said.

They added that a racetrack of such a scale would “at the very least”  require rigorous environment impact assessment studies, which have not been seen to date.

This identified need goes contrary to the decision made by the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) – that such an assessment is not needed for the development of the race track.

Asked about ERA’s decision in the parliamentary questions, Grima gave no direct answer, and instead told MP Stanley Zammit to redirect the query to the “rightful minister”.

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