Grit blasting: No decision on Palumbo appeal after four years

Decision on appeal against PA enforcement against concrete layering on grit blast material, was expected after site inspection held in January

Six years after a clampdown against the alleged landfilling of grit blasting material under a 5,000sq.m concrete platform at the Palumbo shipyard, the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has yet to decide on an appeal by the shipyard owners.

The enforcement notice, which foresaw fines against Palumbo until the illegality is rectified, was formally issued in August 2016, two years after PA officials arrived on the site to collect samples which were later tested by Prof. Alfred Vella.

The studies confirmed the presence of toxic chemicals used in grit blasting that were buried under the platform.

Back in 2016, the Environment and Resources Authority had requested a plan on how Palumbo will remedy the breach in environment laws. The enforcement order was highly contentious because the concession awarded to Palumbo obliges “the observance of the country’s laws” in the running of the Dockyard.

Palumbo immediately appealed, arguing that the grit blasting material found on site predated the privatisation of the shipyards.

The last sitting of the appeals case consisted of a site inspection held in January. Palumbo’s lawyer Matthew Brincat insisted that although traces of grit blasting were still found on site, these were found in levels which were far below the legal limit.

On their part, PA and ERA officials argued that all traces of grit blasting had to be removed before the area was covered by concrete.

In a sitting held in September 2019, the tribunal committed itself to take a decision following a site inspection held a few months later. But a decision is still pending, eight months after the inspection.

Previous sittings revealed that Palumbo lacked a permit to export grit in its first two years of operations, with the first waste shipment taking place in January 2014.

Former PA chief executive Johann Buttigieg had claimed the alleged deposit of waste under the concrete slab took place in 2012, “approximately six months” after Palumbo took over the shipyards. He used aerial photos taken before Palumbo took over the shipyard to confirm that the works took place after the docks were privatised. “It transpired that Palumbo did not have a permit to export grit from the country. So what happened to the grit which was produced in those two years? Obviously, it was either laid under concrete or ended up in the sea,” Buttigieg told the PA’s environmental and planning review tribunal.

Buttigieg confirmed that the PA was informed of this abuse a full three months before taking action in September 2014, two years after the alleged illegality took place and after the publication of newspaper reports denouncing the abuse. The enforcement order was issued two years later.

Palumbo claims that when it took over the shipyards in 2010, it had found a patch of dilapidated land that for decades had been used for grit blasting and painting activities, which was then earmarked for use by super yachts.

They claim that the works took place to level the rough terrain and that the area was cleaned thoroughly before being cemented. They also said that any remnants of grit blasting in this area were deposited before Palumbo assumed ownership of the shipyard. The company had informed Mimcol and the Lands Department about the works on the site in which grit was allegedly covered by concrete. This indicates that the authorities knew about the works in question in 2012.

But samples taken from the site by the Planning Authority have confirmed the presence of spent grit under the concrete platform.

A report by Prof. Alfred Vella, then as head of the chemistry department at the University of Malta, showed high toxicity in the samples taken from this site in September 2014.

MaltaToday is informed that it is extremely rare for cases heard by the EPRT to drag on for four years, but sources confirmed that the delay was partly attributable to the appointment of a new EPRT chairperson, Joseph Borg, instead of Martin Saliba who has now replaced Johann Buttigieg as PA executive chairperson.

During the past months, MSC Cruises and Palumbo Group announced the formation of a joint venture to operate the Palumbo Malta Shipyard which will see MSC Cruises take a 50 per cent stake in the shipyard.