Gozo airfield to get ok without environmental impact assessment

40,000sq.m Gozo airstrip to be approved without any environment impact assessment in government bid to complete it by end-2023 with 15 daily flight movements from 6am to 1am

The Environment and Resources Authority has exempted the proposed “rural airfield” in Xewkija in Gozo from the need of a full Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), after concluding that the impacts of the development are unlikely to be significant to the point of warranting such a study.

Instead of seeking an EIA on the introduction of the fixed-wing service and extension of the airfield, it has called for a separate study on the airfield’s noise impact.

The EIA waiver will facilitate the Gozo ministry’s 2023 deadline for the completion of the project, which has only had preliminary studies that fall short of an EIA, whose terms must be drafted in a public consultation of residents and NGOs.

The existing Ta’ Lambert runway will be extended from its current 174 metres, to a total length of 445m and a safety area of 30m on each end of the airstrip.

Exempting the project from an EIA, the ERA instead recommended “preventive mitigation measures” such as “careful consideration” on the design of the boundary walls to minimise the impact on the rural landscape character, adequate onsite parking, charging facilities for electric cars and airplanes, park-and-ride services, and bicycle racks to promote “alternative modes of transport to alleviate traffic”.

The proposed airfield will enable the introduction of an inter-island service between Gozo and the Malta International Airport (MIA) operating between 6am and 1am. The use of the airfield by other aircraft will be limited to 30 minutes after sunrise to 30 minutes before sunset.

The runway dimensions preclude the operation of medium and large-sized aircraft. But up to 15 daily aircraft movements are expected for the airfield, with three areas for parking facilities for light aircraft that can be surfaced with a reinforced-grass paving system.

The ERA said the upgrade and extension of the runway and the construction of the aprons will take up an approximate area of 40,000sq.m, which is currently covered by soil. Around 6,000 cubic metres of topsoil will be excavated, and partly re-used on site and for nearby agricultural land.

Since the area is already zoned for airport-related activities, the environmental watchdog has “no significant concerns relating to the land use.”

Climate impact not assessed

Chiefly absent in any studies is the effect of projected increase in air traffic, which has been deemed to have a significant impact on air quality. The ERA stopped short of making the electrification of the aircraft fleet for the inter-island service, mandatory.

The ERA’s report also fails to assess the project in terms of climate change obligations despite preliminary studies by the Gozo Regional Authority showing 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.

The Gozo Ministry says any provider will be “encouraged” to adopt an all-electric fleet by 2025, a specification that will be included in the tender. But plans also foresee an open-air, small-scale fuelling depot by the general aviation aircraft. Two 1,000-litre capacity mobile tanks are being proposed to be placed on an impermeable concrete surface.         

The ministry also provided an ornithological report authored by MCAST lecturer Natalino Fenech, which claims the airfield works pose no “foreseeable risk on birds” but recommends a number of measures aimed at minimising light and noise pollution.

The ERA still concluded that the impact on protected bird species inhabiting the protected Ta’ Ċenċ coastal cliffs remains “unclear” and called for an “appropriate assessment” to assess this impact. The ERA also called for a noise impact study aimed at modelling noise emissions during the operation of the airfield.

SCH insists on archaeological investigation

The proposed airstrip is located in an Archaeologically Sensitive Area where cart ruts have been recorded 24 metres away from the site in question. Given the archaeological sensitivity of the area, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has called for the soil-covered areas to be archaeologically evaluated before any planning decisions are taken.

“In the absence of the requested archaeological evaluation, this application cannot be adequately assessed and should therefore not be approved prior to the evaluation,” the SCH said in its first reaction to the proposed development.

Xewkija is rich in archaeological remains, to the extent that archaeologist David Trump had noted “several fine pairs” of cart ruts in the olive grove west of the pumping station, just south of Xewkija, not far away away from the proposed airstrip. In 1948, the newspaper Il-Berqa revealed that parts of these cart ruts were vandalised when explosives were used to clear the ground for the olive grove.

60 years later, most of the area identified for the project became the subject of an enforcement order issued in 2010 against the dumping of material without a permit. The enforcement is still considered an “active case” as no action was ever taken to remove the dumped material from the area.

The planning enforcement was issued following a report against continuous illegal dumping in the area filed by Alternattiva Demokratika in 2008. The party had warned that the authorities were turning a blind eye on dumping to justify the development of an airstrip.