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In the Media

The Times
20th June, 2006

Ramla permit - Auditor questions impact study waiver
Mark Micallef

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority's Audit Officer, Joe Falzon, had criticised the procedure that led to the waiver of an environment impact assessment for the controversial Ramla l-Ħamra project, which was recently given the go-ahead by the Mepa board.

The Audit Officer's report, which was drawn up in February last year but not made public, was released to The Times by Mepa yesterday, after an official request.

Environmental NGOs have been crying foul over the way a permit was granted to build a tourist complex at the site of Ulysses Lodge overlooking Ramla l-Ħamra in Gozo without an EIA.

The document also criticises the presence of a member of the authority's board, Leonard Callus, at a meeting between Mepa officials and the developer during the planning application stage.

"It is the opinion of this office that Mepa board members should not involve themselves, in any manner whatsoever, in the adjudication stage of an application... in fact, when such participation is necessary, the Mepa board members declare an interest and abstain from taking part in the decision making," the 11-page report says.

With regard to the EIA, the report criticises the lack of checks and balances in the system adopted by Mepa to waive EIA studies, despite the fact that the law clearly calls for such checks.

The report also bashes the authority for failing to justify and make public its justification for the waiver as required by law. The authority, in effect, had no formal justification for the waiver, the report notes.

In its reaction to the Audit Officer's comments, Mepa insisted it had justified the waiver, referring to the phrase which was used in its public notice saying that: "In view of the fact that Mepa has sufficient information to take a decision on this application... (the authority will) exempt the applicant from preparing an Environmental Impact Assessment."

Clearly, however, the audit office did not deem this to qualify as a justification.

Commenting on Mr Callus' position, the report highlights his attendance at a meeting between the developers and Mepa on March 15, 2005.

Those present at the meeting confirmed that Mr Callus declared he had no personal interest in the project and took a "passive role".

Nevertheless, the report notes that the Mepa board should ensure its members do not involve themselves in the adjudication stage, whether actively or passively.

"When a member's commitments conflict or appear to conflict with his/her duties as a board member he/she should reconsider his/her duties as a board member."

When contacted, Mr Callus, who works at the Office of the Prime Minister, said he got involved after a complaint, like many others, was lodged at the OPM by the developers about the fact that Mepa was not clear about what it required from the developer.

"I simply got Mepa to meet the developers to tell them exactly what they expected of them. I made it clear that my involvement at that level should not be taken as a sign of approval for the project." When asked whether he believed his involvement, even at that level, raised doubts concerning interference, given his dual role as board member and a member of staff at the OPM, Mr Callus reiterated that he had acted correctly, insisting that his actions were aimed at facilitating the process, wherever it might have led.

Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA), the NGO most vociferously opposed to the project, said yesterday that the report "confirms what we maintained from the very start, that the permit is characterised by irregularities,"

"At this point, it is felt that the only thing the Minister of the Environment and the Prime Minister can do to confirm their environmental credibility is to commission an inquiry.

"It is also hoped that the Mepa chairman has not forgotten his promise to resign if we substantiate our comments," the NGO's front-woman Astrid Vella said.

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