Fear of unknown viruses sinks Marco Cremona’s ground-breaking water treatment solution

An innovative project by eminent hydrologist Marco Cremona that allowed hotels to reduce water demand by 85% was killed by a decision of the Food Safety Commission

Marco Cremona
Marco Cremona

Malta’s celebrated hydrologist Marco Cremona has been denied a food and safety licence for his ground-breaking water treatment solution, over fears of unknown viruses that cannot yet be tested.

The Food Safety Commission denied him a licence for his membrane-based process that turns hotels’ waste-water into potable water for re-use in showers, because of unknown viruses that cannot be tested by present-day safety parameters.

The HOTER system is an award-winning process that hotels use to reduce water demand by 85% in bathrooms and swimming pools.

A frustrated Cremona shared his exasperation on Facebook when he announced he was giving up on the project, railing against the bureaucratic hurdles hindering the ground-breaking project he launched in 2009.

Contacted by this newspaper to list the pitfalls for this award-winning project Cremona put it down to “prejudice on the part of authorities who stuck to perceptions and did not want to discuss the science, and lack of ambition to make the country a world leader in the field of water.”

“Essentially, for me this is the wrong country,” Cremona stated.

The HOTER project was one of three finalists for the prestigious CNBC/Allianz award for the best green business idea in Europe in 2009, and was nominated for the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize, and featured on BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24 and other international news stations. It propelled Cremona to be awarded a Republic Day’s honour in December 2014 for his outstanding achievements in the water sector in Malta and internationally.

Toasted by political leaders, even Labour leader Joseph Muscat tested the prototype at the Radisson Golden Sands Hotel in 2009 on the eve of the European elections, where he drank the treated water.

Since then, various tests carried out over the last decade confirmed that the water from the HOTER process consistently conformed to standards set by the EU Directive and Maltese laws. And in 2012, the European Commission confirmed that the Drinking Water Directive did not prohibit the use of recycled water for drinking purposes, provided relevant quality standards are met – irrespective of the source.

But the final death knell for the project was a decision by the Food Safety Commission in October 2017.

The authorities did not want to discuss the science and… make the country a world leader in the field of water

In its decision, the commission ruled that “though the drinking water must satisfy the criteria of EU and local legislation, it should be free from any virulent viruses.”

The FSC raised its concern on the possible presence of “pathogens and other chemicals that may have a harmful effect on human health” that are still “unknown and untested by present safety standards.”

The commission also contends that this can have “adverse effects on the tourism industry”, concluding that the risks outweigh any benefits “especially when considering that there are currently several alternative sources of water (in Malta).”

The commission confirmed an earlier decision taken by the Health Council in 2013 which also ruled out that the use of treated sewage for human consumption.

Ironically the latest decision coincided with the government’s decision to provide free treated sewage to farmers to water their crops. The Water Services Corporation is using a treatment process that is almost identical to HOTER when producing and delivering recycled water to farmers.

Moreover, a report by the Water Services Corporation in May 2009 considered the production of potable water from sewage derived from sewage treatment plants as “the most economical solution” for the use of recycled water and refers to a “welcoming response” from health officials. It also refers to similar experiences in Australia and Singapore.

The Public Health Department was initially a partner in the HOTER research project alongside TTZ Bremerhaven from Germany and the Island Hotels Group (now IHI).

Water samples from the prototype set up at the Golden Sands hotel in Ghajn Tuffieha were collected and tested by the Public Health Department, and found to conform with Maltese legislation and the EU Drinking Water Directive.

Following the overwhelming success of the research project, HOTER Ltd was set up in February 2010 to commercialise the new technology locally and internationally.

Cremona’s business plan envisaged three commercial installations in Malta by the end of 2012 and a first international plant by the end of 2013. Subsequently the company was granted funding by Malta Enterprise to build its first commercial installation in Malta.

A contract was also signed with the db SeaBank Hotel which accepted to buy and use the recycled water, subject to HOTER Ltd getting a permit from the public health authorities.

The plant was installed and commissioned in 2012-2013, and water samples were collected and analysed in independent laboratories and the water quality found to be excellent. The plant has the capacity to recover 84,000 litres of water a day from treated sewage effluent.

But the Public Health Department was reluctant in granting a permit, even if it did not spell out any legal or scientific reasons for refusal.

Faced by the department’s inertia, a judicial protest was presented by HOTER in March 2013 on the eve of general elections. The issue was raised with new Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and subsequently Health Minister Godfrey Farrugia. But in July 2013 the newly created Health Council formally took a decision against granting a permit to the project, citing the “precautionary principle” and “keeping in mind that there are currently several alternative sources of water”.

Further tests by an independent expert engaged by the same public health department in January 2014 confirmed that the HOTER process at SeaBank could deliver potable quality water. Then in November 2016, Cremona was invited to deliver a presentation to the Food Safety Commission. But it was only in October 2017 that Cremona was handed the commission’s final negative verdict. Apart from a few test runs to collect samples for testing and to satisfy requests by international TV stations for filming of features and documentaries, the HOTER plant was forced to sit it out and deteriorate.

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