The case of the disappearing quarries

Instead of chiding its contractors for not doing their homework properly before accepting contracts that involved huge amounts of excavation waste, Infrastructure Malta shifted the blame onto ERA

Over the weekend, we were told that all roadworks have been suspended as – according to Infrastructure Malta CEO, Frederick Azzopardi – there were no dumping sites available for the disposal of construction and demolition waste, including dredged material. Contractors were therefore facing a problem regarding where to deposit construction waste that, in the case of road works, is mainly excavated rock. The message was that there was a lack of space and no more disused quarries were available.

In truth, however, Malta still has a supply of quarries: but not all of them are available for taking in construction waste. In fact, roadworks contractors are usually the owners of their own quarries, but they refuse to accept waste from other contractors, to reserve space for their current and future commitments. Meanwhile, those who do not own such facilities were being continually asked higher and higher prices.

It was not a case of quarries suddenly disappearing but a case of the price for the disposal of excavated material in quarries shooting up more and more – the more excavation waste is generated by roadworks.

Azzopardi put the onus of the decision on the Environment and Resource Authority (ERA), saying that the suspension would stay in place until it the makes necessary provisions for the disposal of such excavation, demolition and dredging material.

ERA, which is the regulator in this case, rebutted Azzopardi’s stance saying that there are 31 quarries permitted to accept construction waste, six of which have permits only for recycling such waste. 

ERA rightly added that it expected all contractors to seek proper waste management facilities prior to commencement of works that are known to generate many quantities of construction waste. I would say that such action should be taken even before - when contractors bid for a job that generates a lot of mineral waste, they should already know where they are going to dispose of the material generated by the contract and how much they were going to pay for the service.

In truth, therefore, this was a price war. Contractors who had bid for work assuming a particular rate for waste disposal were facing frequent and sudden capricious increases from quarry owners for this disposal, resulting in much of their projected profits literally going to waste.

Instead of chiding its contractors for not doing their homework properly before accepting contracts that involved huge amounts of excavation waste, Infrastructure Malta shifted the blame onto ERA. The PN accused Infrastructure Malta of lack of planning, but in actual fact the lack of planning was on the part of the contractors with whom Infrastructure Malta appears to have a very cosy relationship.

Infrastructure Malta was helping the cause of its contractors – rather than that of its own strict interests – when it went public on the issue, blaming the ERA and ordering its contractors to stop all roadworks to put pressure on ERA and the government.

The two entities are the responsibility of two different ministries – and so it should be. Was this the first Ian Borg-Aaron Farrugia clash? Time will tell.

Remember, Aaron Farrugia had just been earning kudos from all over the political spectrum and environmental NGOs for his decision to ditch the fuel station policy concocted by the Planning Authority under Ian Borg and replace it by one that is much more sensible and environment friendly.

Last Tuesday, Cabinet decided that the government was to intervene in the market to drive down the price for the disposal of waste to €12 per tonne from even up to €18. Legally this decision should have been taken by ERA and then, perhaps, endorsed by the government; but in Malta many regulators exist just for decoration.

But why am I nitpicking? Because I perceive that the status of regulators is not respected by the current administration. This could be due to the fact that the current Maltese Cabinet is bereft of intellectual heft and, except for Edward Scicluna, none had distinguished themselves before entering politics.

There is another aspect of this issue that has, moreover, been continually ignored: contractors who own a quarry permitted to accept construction waste have an edge over other contractors who do not have such facilities of their own. These contractors/quarry owners refuse to accept waste generated by other contractors, or ask exhorbitant rates for doing so. This is distorting the market and creating unfair advantages for some contractors. This is where ERA, as a regulator, should have intervened long ago. It should ensure a level playing field in this sector.

ERA should also be pushing for more recycling of construction waste and excavated material. Unless it pushes this by providing guidelines and benefits to people who embark on such projects, the issue of construction waste disposal will remain with us for the long term.

Where construction and excavation waste is concerned, ERA has a big tough job ahead of it, if it wants to observe the law that created it. Losing time in petty sqaubbles with another branch of government is not on.

Political dead end

On Thursday, many local newspapers reported the resignation from Parliament of former minister Chris Cardona in their front page.

Cardona, who was elected to Parliament in six consecutive elections, obviously concluded that his political career was at a dead end after losing his ministerial status, following the election of Robert Abela as PL leader and Prime Minister.

For the time being, it seems, he will retain his post of Labour Party deputy deader for party affairs. In the circumstances, that is still going back, rather than forward.

Cardona has had a controversial record as a minister. While he can claim some successes in attracting investment to Malta, he had two ‘colourful’ episodes as minister: the allegation that he visited a brothel during an official ministerial visit in Germany and the attempt to implicate him in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Unfortunately for him, any chances of his ever realistically holding significant political power again have dissipated and those two episodes will always crop up when his political career is mentioned.

Yet another politician bites the dust. As Enoch Powell once famously said: every political career ends in tears.