Malta’s ‘underwater Maghtab’. . . chemical impact unknown

No studies have so far been conducted on the chemical and physical impact of Malta’s underwater Maghtab – the place where massive amounts of construction waste are dumped on the seabed in an identified area off Xghajra.

This is because no resources and funds were allocated to carry out studies contemplated in the Water Catchment Management Plan issued in 2011 for the period between 2010 and 2015. The plan included a clear commitment to study these impacts.

The plan acknowledged that the potential impact of the existing dump site on local waters is not known. Therefore the plan – an obligation coming from the EU Framework directive – called “for a study on the impacts of the dump site on the water and sediment quality as well as on supporting species and habitats”. 

A report published last month assessing the implementation of the first water catchment management plan states that this measure was not implemented “due to a lack of funds and due to a loss of human resources to oversee the implementation of the study”.

According to the report this measure is required so that future policy related to dumping waste at sea is carried out on the basis of scientific knowledge. This measure will therefore have to be taken up in the next five years. 

Disposing waste at sea

A staggering 1.9 million tonnes of construction waste had been dumped in an offshore “spoil ground” located northeast of Valletta harbour between 2004 and 2010.

Since no regulatory framework existed before 2002, the authorities have no idea about how much waste was dumped prior to that date.

The spoil ground had been in use since the time of World War II when the site was used for the dumping of war damage rubble in the 1940s.

The site has been in continuous use ever since and no impact assessment was ever carried out: it has been used to dump construction waste excavated from the Malta Freeport, the Tigné Midi project, the Fort Cambridge project, the Viset project in Pinto Wharf and more recently the Smart City project in Ricasoli.

Between 2007-2009 the majority of the waste constituted clean geological material originating from construction and demolition projects on land, while in 2010-2011, the majority of the waste disposed at sea constituted dredged material. In 2010, 353 tonnes of spoilt cargo (grain) were also disposed at sea. 

Six years ago, the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority had commissioned experts Scott Wilson (UK) at a cost of €23,393 to carry out a preliminary study. 

MEPA claimed that the study presents a picture of “a site that has been subjected to dumping operations for over 50 years under different regulatory regimes”, adding that the survey results reflect this.

The report showed that the natural characteristics of the spoil ground and surrounding areas have been altered and the area “is characterised by very large boulders” and “unconsolidated terrigenous material together with a variety of anthropogenic material”. 

Although the largest accumulations of dumped material were located within the designated spoil ground, the distribution of spoil extended beyond the designated area. 

Of particular note are the turbid conditions recorded throughout the surveyed area due to the presence of fine sediments and other particulate matter originating from the regular spoil dumping activities. 

Risk of contamination minimised

One of the risks of disposing construction waste into the sea is that dangerous chemicals could find their way into the sea if they are mixed with the inert waste.

But this risk has been minimised by monitoring which is deemed satisfactory in the report assessing the implementation of measures proposed in the Water Catchment Management Plan.

The monitoring of dumping operations at the spoil ground is necessary to ensure that dumping activities at sea do not pose a significant threat to the marine environment. 

Disposal at sea is regulated by MEPA through the Waste Consignment Note Procedure. MEPA checks that the quality of waste that is loaded on the barges is in accordance with the regulations. Data on the type and quality of waste is also kept. 

The actual monitoring of the trip the barge takes to the spoil ground is done by Transport Malta. The movement of barges is effectively monitored by means of the Vessel Traffic Services and visible through the Automatic Identification Service. The movements of and communications with the vessel are logged. 

More in Environment