[WATCH] Updated | Magħtab fire: Waste went up in flames 'spontaneously'

Wasteserv CEO Tonio Montebello said the fire broke out this morning as material started to be uncovered in preparation for it to be exported • Environment Minister Jose Herrera said the necessary precautions had been taken and that the fire was quickly brought under control • PN accuses Herrera of skirting responsibility by not clarifying fire's cause or if toxic fumes were released

Environment Minister Jose Herrera (left) and Wasteserv CEO Tonio Montebello (right)
Environment Minister Jose Herrera (left) and Wasteserv CEO Tonio Montebello (right)

The fire that broke out this morning at the Magħtab waste treatment complex was the result of the auto-combustion of Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) that was being prepared for export.

Addressing a press conference at the facility after the fire was controlled by members of the Civil Protection Department (CPD), Wasteserv CEO Tonio Montebello said that RDF waste is collected and sent abroad to be used as a fuel.

RDF waste includes the waste collected in the black and grey bags that cannot be recycled. Montebello said that RDF waste, owing to its very flammable nature, is kept in an isolated section of the plant in an inert environment.

According to Montebello, the fire broke out at 5:30am as some RDF waste that was to be exported to Portugal was uncovered by Wasteserv staff.

READ MORE: Massive fire at Magħtab waste complex

“We were starting to prepare it to export and knew there was a risk that when uncovered it could cause a fire, so we were prepared for this eventuality,” he said, explaining that the material mainly included cardboard and paper, with some plastic. 

“It is precisely because of our foresight in isolating the RDF that the fire did not spread.”

He said that exporting RDF - which Malta will be paying around €160 per ton to send to Portugal - was an immediate and temporary measure that has been adopted until the planned incinerator has been completed.

Montebello said that it had taken some eight months for Wastserv to obtain the necessary permits from Portugal to export the material, adding that the danger of another fire will be minimised once exportation starts.

No inquiry to take place

Environment minister Jose Herrera said that it appeared that the fire was not started intentionally, however he said that an inquiry would be launched to ascertain exactly what had happened.

Despite his request, Herrera said it was the magistrate that needed to decide whether an inquiry would take place, and he had been informed that the Duty Magistrate did not feel an inquiry should take place.

READ MORE: Health Authorities issue warning

Asked about the magisterial inquiry into the fire at the Sant Antnin facility last year, Herrera said that this had not yet been concluded, and said he could not publish the results of the ministry’s internal inquiry - which he said has itself been finalised - before the public inquiry is issued.

Herrera also explained that the material was being exported because Malta was running out of space to dispose of it in.

The minister also said he had instructed the Environment and Resources Authority to monitor the quality of air. He said the authority would be issuing a public statement in the coming hours.

PN: Essential to know what caused fire and if toxins were released in air

It is essential for the reason behind the fire to become known, and the public also has the right to be told whether any harmful toxins were released in the air, Adrian Delia said.

Speaking at a press conference in the aftermath of this morning’s fire, the Opposition leader insisted that minister Herrera was obliged to obtain information on whether the fire had some impact on public health, and the mere fact that he had - at the earlier government press conference - appeared none the wiser as to the cause of the blaze, alone highlighted his reluctance to assume responsibility.

“It also shows that they don’t even know where toxic material is being stored,” Delia emphasised, as he underscored the Opposition’s “serious concern” about the environment and its related health effects in Malta.

“This is the second serious incidence is little more than a year at a waste management facility,” he said, referring to May last year’s fire at the Sant’Antnin recycling plant in Marsascala.

Opposition leader Adrian Delia said it was essential that the exact cause of the fire be made public
Opposition leader Adrian Delia said it was essential that the exact cause of the fire be made public

“Yet the Environment Minister gave no actual information on what led to the occurrence. We fear that this was a direct result of the skirting of responsibility when it comes to waste management,” he said.

“We are asking what led to the fire, who was responsible for it, and whether there are standards in place to avoid these incidents,” he underlined, offering his solidarity to those living in the vicinity who had to contend with “bits of burnt plastic” on their roofs and polluted air as a result.

“The Nationalist Party sees waste as a resource, not a problem,” Delia said, when asked what his policies were in terms of managing the waste issue.

He also touched on the information revealed by Herrera today, that the internal inquiry on the Sant’Antnin fire had been finalised, but not published, pending the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry.

“This seems to be the way the government does things - it publishes inquiries only when it is politically convenient for them, just like with the Egrant case,” he remarked.

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