[WATCH] ITS site project: Alternattiva concerned on fate of unique submerged cave

Alternattiva Demokratika says environment studies for the db Group's high rise project on the ITS site make conflicting statements on the impact the development will have on the protected submerged cave known as Ghar Harq Hamiem

An artist's impression of the db Group's City Centre project on the ITS site in St George's Bay
An artist's impression of the db Group's City Centre project on the ITS site in St George's Bay

Alternattiva Demokratika has expressed concern on what it termed as "conflicting statements" in the environment impact assessment of the City Centre project on the site of the former ITS school.

In its submissions on the studies, AD called for the reports to be "revised and revisited" in those aspects dealing with whether excavations should be conducted above the protected cave.

The excavations are being proposed as part of the high rise project proposed in the area by db Group, which includes a Hard Rock hotel and a 37-floor residential tower.

The cave is the only known fully-submerged terrestrial cavern in the Maltese islands and is inhabited by the rare albino shrimp.

Watch this rare footage of Ghar Harq Hamiem from the TV series Taht l-Art

Taht l'Art Harq il-Hamiem from brian restall on Vimeo.

AD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo highlighted the discrepancy between different reports included in the EIA and insisted that the whole matter “was dealt with unconvincingly and should be extensively revisited and revised”.

The cultural heritage survey report indicated that the impact of the proposed development on the cave would be "adverse", recommedning that "no excavation should be carried out above the cave".

But Cacopardo noted that the EIA coordinator insisted this statement in the cultural heritage survey report was not based on "geology and geotechnical studies". The coordinator said geotechnical studies indicated that the "cutting of the rock on top of the cave can be carried out as long as the necessary precautions are taken".

According to the geotechnical studies there is a 24 metre thick layer of rock between the cave and the lowest excavation level.  

Yet the same report recommended caution in proceeding with rock cutting operations because "the rock is expected to be fractured and karstified".

The EIA coordinator insisted that the decision on whether the impact of the development on the cave is adverse or not should be left to the professional judgement of geologists and geotechnical engineers.

Cave far larger than originally thought

The original draft of the North Harbour Local Plan in 1999 identified Moynihan House - the building adjacent to the ITS site and which does not form part of the City Centre project - as a site for a car park but the project was abandoned following a detailed study of Ghar Harq Hamiem.

The study revealed that the cave was far larger than originally thought. The studies led to the discovery of a passage connecting the first chamber to a deeper chamber closer to the ITS.

The stability of Ghar Harq Hammiem is related to the thickness of its roof. Geologist Peter Gatt had told MaltaToday in 2016 that the roof of the deeper chamber was over 30 metres thick, making it relatively safe.

However, Gatt had also called for more studies on the impact of excavations in the area. Gatt was one of the authors of the geological studies included in the EIA.

In its submissions AD also expressed concern on the lack of documentation on the cumulative impact of all five major projects proposed around the perimeter of St George’s Bay, ranging from construction waste to traffic and air quality.

It also called on the environment protection agency to consider the "domino impacts" of the db Group project in fuelling further residential development in Pembroke to cater for the foreign labour force that will service the area.

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