Gozo airstrip decision leaves the public ‘grounded’

In this sense: even if the airport is approved, it is vital to address the fears of future extensions by enacting a planning policy which not only clearly limits the extent of the airstrip; but also the flight movements within the area

The prospect of a permanent, fixed-wing airstrip on Gozo has sporadically surfaced, ever since Eddie Fenech Adami first floated the idea in the mid-1990s.

Then as now, it remains a controversial proposal – opposed by many on environmental grounds; and because – like the equally contentious Malta-Gozo tunnel project – it is likely to forever alter the island’s fundamentally unique character.

Nonetheless, the Environment and Resource Authority has only just decided to exempt the proposed “rural airfield” in Xewkija  from the need of a full Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).

Bearing in mind that the proposed 445m long airstrip will take up an area of 40,000sq.m, and the excavation of 6,000 cubic metres of topsoil: this decision sends out the wrong message, that projects proposed (and supported) by government are being given ‘red carpet treatment’.

Let’s not forget that even smaller developments - like fuel stations located in ODZ - are obliged to present detailed EIAs.

Moreover, a pattern is clearly emerging: as this is not the only public project to have been exempted from EIA requirements.  A similar decision was also taken with regard to the motorsport development in Hal Far.  Both projects are deemed priorities by the central government; and the EIA waiver clearly shortens the timeframe of approval.

In fact, government has already established 2023 as the target date for the completion of the airstrip. This also coincides with parallel moves to exempt other government-backed projects from the ‘sequential approach’ (which obliges the consideration of already-developed land, before proposing projects in rural areas) advocated in the National Spatial Strategy, currently being drafted.

The ERA’s justification for the EIA waiver is that the environmental impact is not of a scale which warrants an EIA. This is because the proposed airstrip is largely limited to disturbed grounds around the existing heliport: formerly subjected to uncontrolled dumping under a PN administration, which had already earmarked the site for a larger airstrip before the project was halted by the Sant government in 1996.

But the introduction of a new air travel connection, in itself, should merit a much fuller and more comprehensive study. In fact, the worst impact of the EIA waiver is that it also means that no public consultation will take place to determine the terms of reference.

And while an EIA may well conclude that an airstrip can still be approved without substantial impacts on the environment: it would also include recommendations to address the concerns raised by NGOs, residents and the general public.

Moreover, EIAs are not limited to the direct ecological impacts of developments; but also have to assess alternatives while recommending mitigation measures for each and every impact.  EIAs also assess the opportunity cost of dedicating scarce land resources for the development of projects like airstrips, or race-courses.  For example: in the case of the Hal Far race course, an EIA would assess whether such land can be better utilised to cater for the expansion of industrial facilities.

In the absence of an EIA, the alternative of restoring the Xewkija disturbed land to its former agricultural use - after clearing the site from illegal dumping - is not even considered at all.

And as also was the case with the motorsport track, the ERA has still demanded a noise impact study, and an assessment on potential impacts on a nearby Natura 2000 site: in this case the Mgarr ix-Xini coastal cliffs.

Yet the elephant in the room, in this case, is the change-of-use from a small heliport, to a much larger airstrip which is bound to seriously affect Xewkija residents: whose life will be impacted by a small airport operating between 6 and 1am.

The EIA waiver does not stop the Planning Authority from demanding a separate social impact assessment, before a final decision is taken. Such a study is vital to assess the concerns of the local community.  (For example, it may well be the case that residents would prefer the service to stop operating earlier than 1am.)

Another impact, which cannot be assessed in the absence of an EIA, is that on climate change. Preliminary studies by the Gozo Regional Authority have already shown that carbon emissions generated by aircraft using the airfield, will be more than double the emissions of cars travelling from the Malta airport to Gozo.

An EIA would have obliged the government to explore ways of mitigating the impact: for example, by limiting the use of the airport to electric planes, instead of simply “encouraging” the use of such aircraft.

One also has to consider that – although, as currently proposed, the airstrip is limited in size – the new activity will have to be financially sustainable over the next decades: something which may well increase future pressures for increased use of the airstrip, currently limited to 15 aircraft movements a day.

In this sense: even if the airport is approved, it is vital to address the fears of future extensions by enacting a planning policy which not only clearly limits the extent of the airstrip; but also the flight movements within the area.

But with the EIA waiver, all hope of public consultation has unfortunately been ‘grounded’.