Sunday Times of Malta, 20 September 2009, by Caroline Muscat –

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority has dismantled its environmental enforcement unit, just five years after making a €280,000 investment to improve its enforcement capacity.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the environment inspectorate is no longer a functioning unit, with most of the personnel previously dedicated to the enforcement of environmental regulations transferred to other departments and units.

In 2004, Mepa secured €250,000 from the EU Transitional Project Programme for a capacity-building project aimed at improving the enforcement of environmental regulations. An additional €30,000 was provided by Mepa, bringing the total expenditure to €280,000.

The authority’s director-general at the time, Godwin Cassar, had said: “Establishing the administrative set up to implement Malta’s environmental obligations is only part of the task. The real challenge is enforcement.”

As part of the training programme, 25 enforcement officers and inspectors from Mepa took part in a traineeship with environmental agencies in other EU countries. Two high profile international experts renowned for their work in environmental enforcement were also brought to Malta to design the training programme, assess Mepa’s capacity to enforce environmental regulations and recommend improvements.

However, Mepa has now admitted its environment inspectorate has been dismantled. According to the authority, the reshuffle of personnel is part of an internal restructuring that does not affect the service it provides.

A spokesman said: “The trend is to reduce the arbitrary distinction between inspectors and policy officers in favour of a multi-tier system of environmental enforcement, where more specialised officers may be brought in as backup to frontline enforcement, even if they normally focus on policy related tasks”.

But the enforcement of environmental regulations has weakened, according to environmental organisations who say there is no “frontline enforcement”.

Nature Trust president Vincent Attard said: “The environmental enforcement unit was already understaffed. Dismantling it has made it worse. The environment unit has less than half the staff the planning unit has – the planning arm in Mepa is much stronger.”

Mepa is responsible for the implementation of around 200 EU environmental directives, regulations and decisions. The protection of the environment is essentially in its hands.

Mr Attard added: “It is a very reactive system based on reports, so we have to police the environment, make the reports and hope that action is taken.”

Martin Galea of Din L-Art Ħelwa said: “A glance at the state of the environment shows it is self-evident that there is a problem with enforcement.”

Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar has also been critical, citing the recent “savage destruction” of the natural environment at Kalkara valley.

Astrid Vella said: “Our repeated reports were not acted upon until it was too late.” Friends of the Earth Malta stated that “enforcement is practically non-existent. We have been complaining about this for some time. It is pointless to have so many environmental regulations if there is nobody to ensure they are being upheld”.

The latest statistics produced by the authority for July show there were just three environmental inspections and no action was taken by the pollution prevention and control unit (PCCU). In the same month in 2005, the environment inspectorate carried out 27 inspections while the PCCU investigated 44 complaints and made 73 inspections related to illegal dumping, emissions and dust abatement.

Last week, The Sunday Times reported the suspension of Mepa’s pollution reporting service – no public announcement was made and no alternative course of action provided. The decision was deemed “unacceptable” by the authority’s chairman, Austin Walker, but nobody shouldered responsibility for the decision. Five days after The Sunday Times’ report, Mepa resumed the service.

Enforcement is one of the four main pillars in the planned Mepa reform. The Office of the Prime Minister said capacity was being studied and the aim was to present the new Mepa Act to Parliament for discussion and approval by the end of the year.