Change from within? | Petra Bianchi

Six months after her direct appointment as the head of MEPA’s environmental arm, Petra Bianchi, a former President of Din l-Art Helwa, is confident that she can change things from within. 

As luck would have it, on the day of my interview with Petra Bianchi, there was no trace of the bad smells which have haunted Hexagon House – the building housing the Environment Protection Directorate – over the past two years. 

I am told that the problem has been largely resolved after MEPA clamped down on oil bunkering activities in the area.

Moreover, another mystery which haunted southern localities for the past decade, seems to have been resolved earlier on this week.

Although Prof. Alfred Vella’s report on the black dust problem was finalised in March, the report was only published this week.

Bianchi says that the report had to be “circulated and reviewed” before being made public.

So why did it take an entire decade for the authorities to solve this riddle?

Bianchi points out that the report’s conclusions were not new.

“The indication that the Marsa power station was a possible source of ‘black dust’, together with traffic, is not new and was already suggested previously… MEPA had commissioned this report in 2009 because it felt that further studies were required, however this is not the first study that was carried out to identify the causes of the problem.”

Bianchi’s role as Director of the Environment Protection Directorate includes a wide range of duties, among them waste, air quality, noise, biodiversity, environmental permitting and environmental assessments. It also includes a section dealing with EU and international affairs.

“The Environment Protection Department mainly focuses on regulation in all these areas”.

Before her appointment, Bianchi was the President of one of Malta’s most established ENGOs. She believes this to be an advantage in her new role.

“I think that coming from an NGO background helps me to understand the concerns of people about the environment; concerns about issues such as land use, waste and air quality”.

What is the difference between working outside the institutions and becoming part of the decision-making process?

“When one works in an NGO, one can choose whether to engage with an issue or not, depending on the resources and expertise available to the NGO. So you can define your own boundaries. Whereas here I am obliged to participate in all issues that fall within our responsibilities. So the parameters within which I work are now very different”.

Ultimately, the major difference is that in her new role she sees the possibility of changing things.

“This job may give me more possibilities to change things and to influence decisions, and this was one reason why I accepted the position.  It is a different set of tools. I am working in the same area but with different tools…”

When last interviewed by MaltaToday months before her appointment, Bianchi was very critical of the government environmental policy; saying that “the vision simply is not there, objectives are shaky at best, and resources are badly managed, so much so that our few natural resources are over-exploited to the point that if something drastic is not done soon, then there will be nothing left to protect.” Has anything changed?

“When it comes to vision and outlining objectives there has been a significant step forward through the National Environment Policy. That is what an environment policy does. It gives a vision for the environment and also proposes an action plan to implement objectives. It also sets a framework which goes beyond MEPA and the EPD or the public sector, to include the wider community.”

Is there a risk that this policy will simply result in an endless cycle of reports and paperwork with little being done on the ground?

“The Policy includes actions as well as studies, however reports in themselves are very important to inform decisions. The Air Quality Plan and the Water Catchments Management Plan also include many targets and actions. And the National Environment Policy also includes target dates. Plans are also important because decisions are bound to have social impacts, which we have to assess”.

In her role in Din l-Art Helwa, Bianchi took a number of stances on various land use issues, such as Hondoq ir-Rummien, on which the EPD has also expressed its opinion.  Does this compromise the objectivity of the EPD on these issues?

Bianchi does not regret anything in this.

“Whatever stands I took in the past, I believed I was correct in doing so. In the same way, as issues come up now I will always take the stance, which I believe to be the best one. Obviously, the positions that the EPD takes are not just my personal opinion. It provides a complete picture based on technical input, involving many people”.

She also makes it clear that her role in decision-making is quite limited.

“Neither am I in a position to decide on planning projects as this is the MEPA board’s prerogative… The EPD is a technical arm of MEPA, which advises the board”.

Bianchi was directly appointed without having to submit herself to a selection process. Both her predecessors had been appointed after a selection process. Does this direct appointment – deemed inappropriate by the Authority’s own auditor – make her feel uncomfortable?

Bianchi does not beat around the bush.

“I accepted the job on that basis. I do not think that this impinges in any way on my work. In the end, I will be judged on my achievements.”

So what achievements has she accomplished so far?

She describes the past six months as a “learning curve.”

“I had to familiarise myself with the different levels of the organisation and the work...  You cannot change things immediately. It is important to start moving things in the direction that you want them to go. That is very important, even if it does not make a lot of noise”.

Bianchi has an academic background in literature and management. Her predecessors were more specialised in technical matters related to environmental protection. Does this not put her at a disadvantage?

“No… technical expertise is not lacking here. The important thing is to know when to seek advice and to be a good listener. And it is not only a matter of seeking technical advice, but also of understanding the concerns of people about the environment. We deal with such a wide range of issues that it would be impossible to find one expert who understands everything… In the end, you always have to listen to others. The most important thing is to know when and how to listen to other people and to then take decisions according to your best judgement”.

The environment is a term encompassing a wide range of issues – ranging from land use to alternative energy sources and waste recovery. Is there a risk that these can come in conflict with each other?

She recognises that land use is always the issue, which gets a lot of attention because it is highly visible.

“People are immediately aware of changes to the landscape because they see them. But there are other equally important environmental issues which do not prompt the same strong reaction in people, perhaps because they are less tangible”. 

But she also believes that people are right in being concerned about land use, as it affects many other environmental issues. 

“Land use is one of the biggest environmental challenges that we face, because Malta is a densely populated and very small country. That is why we need strong direction in the way we allocate land for various uses in a sustainable way”.

Is there a risk that local communities only speak up out of NIMBY, rather than concern for the wider aspects of environmental protection?

“People are always concerned about what happens in their neighbourhood. This is entirely justified. On the other hand, as MEPA we have to look at the bigger picture, and clearly explain why some concerns are either taken on board or not. The issues are often very complex”.

One of the EPD’s main responsibilities is the issue of environmental permits. This includes the issue of Integrated Pollution Prevention Control Permits. The IPPC permit for the new power station will determine which type of fuel will be used. How does Bianchi counter the perception that this is a sheer formality, considering that Enemalta has already built the chimneys of the power station according to the size required by an HFO fired power station.

“Well, the chimneys were approved in principle, but the height of these chimneys was a reserved matter, which will be determined through the IPPC permit. This permit is yet to be determined and is undergoing a process of public consultation”.

She also explains that the EPD is still reviewing and receiving feedback on this issue.

“The application documents are being processed and the final decision will eventually be taken by the MEPA board… The role of the EPD is to advise the board and to ensure that all emission levels are within legally stipulated limits”. 

She also insists “it is not a question of determining which kind of fuel is used, but of regulating emission limits and the management of other matters such as waste and anything related to pollution control.”

The IPPC permit will not be determined by the EPD but by the MEPA board but the EPD will present the board with a draft permit to be discussed and approved or not by the board.

One of the steps taken by the new EPD director was to publish the directorate’s reports on different current EIAs like that on Hondoq ir-Rummien, which is being assessed by MEPA. The report called on MEPA to refuse this project. What has prompted this change?

Bianchi describes this as “a big step forward.” This is because, until recently, such reports were not available to the public. The EPD’s recommendations were only included in the case officer’s report along with the opinions of other entities. 

“We felt that these reports deserved more prominence. This improves access to information by the public and ensures that environmental impact assessment is given the weight it deserves”.

Last year, MEPA announced a system of environmental permitting for quarries. Yet a large number of quarries still lack such a permit. Why is this the case?

“The Environmental Permitting Unit within the EPD is dealing with this area. Over the past nine months, quarry owners have been approached and the process has been initiated. About half have already submitted their application for an environmental permit, and these are being processed”.

She also explains the difference between a planning permit and an environmental permit.

“An environment permit is an ongoing process. It includes regular monitoring to ensure compliance with conditions… as regards quarries, new regulations have also been drafted, to control vibrations and dust.  That is all part of the general framework promoted in the environmental permitting systems for quarries.”

MEPA has become more vigilant in protecting Natura 2000 sites from development but when will these areas fall under proper management and not be allowed to degenerate?

She says that at the moment, there is a tender being evaluated for the management plans for all these sites. 

“This is a process which will continue over the next few years and will require a number of studies. In managing these sites, there are many issues we have to consider, including conflicting uses of these sites by different stakeholders. This has to be regulated through the management of these sites. These plans should be in place in around two years time”.

What are Malta’s greatest environmental challenges?

She contends that our environmental troubles aren’t too differnt from global ones... for example, issues of climate change, resource efficiency, the loss of biodiversity…

“We are all part of the same picture”.

As regards resources, Malta’s main challenges include land use, water and stone. Another challenge is the integration of environmental plans and policies throughout all sectors of government. 

“Now that we have the parameters for this laid out in the National Environment Policy, this direction has to be taken on board by everyone. The environment cannot be viewed as a sector that exists on its own, it has to be addressed across the board by all entities.

“However, the success of environmental policies does not depend only on government but on them being endorsed and acted out by the community. One positive aspect is the introduction of the teaching of environmental issues in schools.”

In the past, critics have pointed out that the amalgamation of the environment department to the planning authority had weakened the former at the expense of the latter.

Does it make sense to have one institution – with MEPA regulating both planning and environmental aspects – instead of two separate organisations?

Bianchi agrees with this amalgamation as it enables the authority to address environmental issues in a more holistic way.

“Land use is also an environmental issue. For example, the environmental assessment process is an integral part of the planning process.

“In this way, the environmental data generated sets the boundaries to be taken into account in planning decisions. It is much better to see the big picture holistically, than to have two entities taking separate decisions, possibly in a confrontational way… it also makes sense to have the two directorates together as this enables us to share resources and expertise.”

This interview appeared in MaltaToday's Sunday edition

Jobs for the boys all over again, simply there to toe the party line. MEPA is corrupt and will never change under the current administration. What a complete waste of taxpayers' money.
How can she beat about the bush when she was hand picked for the job? A blue eyed girl with a literature academic background? Hope that after six months she is out of her learning curve.
“This job may give me more possibilities to change things and to influence decisions, and this was one reason why I accepted the position. It is a different set of tools. I am working in the same area but with different tools…” AND THEN She also makes it clear that her role in decision-making is quite limited. “Neither am I in a position to decide on planning projects as this is the MEPA board’s prerogative… The EPD is a technical arm of MEPA, which advises the board”. Se tibiddel ukoll? Hawwadni ha nifhem!
How does a PhD in English get a planning post? It’s just Connections silly; you could be an egg head for all it matters, as long as you do what you’re told, you’re in. What’s the track record with this board member? Just like the rest, whenever she’s expected to voice her concern she just sits in silence and plays the game. . MEPA is just a rotten apple! These people are just there to serve their master. Forget about competence and issuing permits in line with MEPA own policies. MEPA issued many permits that breach planning policies before the last election and continues to do so in spite of the pledged reform. Ultimately nothing has changed at MEPA post reform; it’s all about politics and nothing to do with policies, building in Outside Development Zones (ODZ), exceeding building heights, zoning, preserving our fragile environment..... . MEPA’s reform is just a joke; MEPA has gone from bad to worse. Its judgment like its financials has reached all time low.
Do you want a positive judgement? 1-More gym's along Sliema coast please. Why not? 2-More restaurants along Sliema coast. Why not? 3-Legalize boat houses at Armier,Ghadira etc...... Why not? Why do we have an Environmental and Planning Authority? Don't know.
When she was as President of Din l-Art Helwa she came out in favour of the Piano Monstrosity. So nothing she says in favour of the environment can be taken seriously.
You cannot change anything from within when the core is bloody corrupt! This is all bla bla bla
Apologist at work. We'll judge you on what you do and not what you say.
Mhux kulhadd kien jaf minn fejn gej it-trab iswed mhemx ghalfejn tmur l-universita...good luck lill Ms Bianchi...biss din promozzjoni Inglizata biex titnehha minn fejn kond qed toqros...iz-zmien itina l-parir l-aqwa li l-poplu mhux mignun.