Sunday, 30 May 2010

Bahrija valley development takes toll on indigenous freshwater crab

From TMIS of 30th May 2010.

Bahrija valley development takes toll on
indigenous freshwater crab
by Annaliza Borg

The freshwater crab, which lives in just six places in the Maltese islands, has been protected since 1993 and was listed in at least two legal notices in 2003 and 2006, giving it added protection.

Yet the controversial development in Bahrija valley in recent months, rendered more contentious still because it was undertaken by then Nationalist Party president Victor Scerri, has resulted in crab burrows being crushed under concrete.

The indigenous species, however, was not protected from the development, according to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority in reply to questions put by this newspaper, because the development permit in question had been approved prior to the coming into force of Legal Notice 311 of 2006, which transposed the EU’s Habitats Directive into Maltese legislation.

The Ramblers Association of Malta has filed a judicial protest against Mepa for allowing the development to take place. This was met with no action and the association has now opened a court case, asking Mepa to revert matters to the rule of law. Mr Justice Joseph Zammit McKeon is presiding over the case.

The species, known as qabru in Maltese or by its scientific name potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi, is known to have existed for centuries and is endemic to Malta. Today it survives in only one place in Gozo and five places in Malta.

Moreover, the number of individual specimens has been greatly reduced in these areas, sometimes to the point of extinction, as a result of pressure from agriculture – including the use of pesticides – and the over-extraction of water, urbanisation, free access and indiscriminate collecting.

The apparent redirection of the water flow resulting from the development, which Nature Trust Malta has reported to Mepa, has resulted in an extreme drought in an area that contains numerous crab burrows. One of the crab burrows existed in what is now a completely dry area, with the closest water some four metres away. The fact that the site contains burrows inhabited by crabs should be reason enough to halt the development immediately, according to Nature Trust.

Other important species such as the painted frog and the Bahrija bush cricket have also been recorded in the area.

“Last year, we stared in disbelief when we saw masses of blue clay and stone being bulldozed before our eyes just a couple of metres away from one of the most important freshwater springs in Malta and right in the middle of one of Malta’s supposedly top protected sites,” Nature Trust activist Annalise Falzon told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

She explained that the students she guides on walks along this “beautiful valley” always ask the unanswerable question: “How has this been allowed to happen?”

The development, she added, is not the only threat, but the one that has exacerbated other existing problems, such as polluted water and reduced water flow due to over extraction. Crabs often end up being squashed by bikes and cars traversing the path along the valley bed and a simple solution would be to install a wooden bridge as the road was built just on the valley bed, meaning that crabs cross it all the time and even have burrows right at the side of it. Nature Trust believes that only vehicles belonging to farmers and residents should be allowed to drive past.

Residents have also reported sewage leaks and environmentalists have noticed more algae – possibly another sign of excess nitrates.

The same environmental organisation has reported the matter locally and to the EU several times. In the meantime, this newspaper managed to obtain answers from Mepa to some of the questions that Nature Trust has been asking all along.

We asked whether any hydrological studies had been carried out to assess the effect of the development on the site, especially after the removal of truckloads of blue clay, the change in the morphology of the valley side, water percolation on site and the lack of mitigation measures on site.

Mepa replies

“This permit, by which the development is being carried out, had been approved prior to the entry into force of Legal Notice 311 of 2006, transposing the Habitats Directive, which states that member states are to carry out detailed assessments (formally known as an appropriate assessment) on projects that may potentially have a significant impact on a Special Areas of Conservation,” Mepa said in reply.

Outraged by this reply, Ms Falzon noted that the site lies “outside scheme” and that “planning legislation should be enough for that”. She pointed out that the site had already been scheduled as level 1 and had been given the highest level of protection under GN 063/96 since 1996.

“Even if the permit (development application) was considered before new legislation – this can never mean that a development can break the law,” she said. “The habitats directive concerns also the species on site.

“The freshwater crab has been protected since 1993 and was later also listed in Schedules III and VI of LN 311 of 2006. This was preceded by LN 257 of 2003, which had already established the need to protect this species,” she insisted.

Mepa was also asked about site monitoring, what is being done to address the problem of slow, stagnant water and drainage overflows and what conditions and mitigation measures were imposed on the developer to ensure that no debris falls into the water course.

While work was in progress, Mepa said, the site was monitored by enforcement personnel who carried out very frequent inspections, at times even daily, during sensitive phases of construction work. A number of conditions were imposed by the Environment Protection Directorate to protect the species and its habitat, following a review of the construction method statement submitted by the architect, it added.

Mepa also commented that there is no link between incidences of drainage overflow and the development. In any event, the site is not served by a sewage system and the development will, in fact, need to be supplied with a cesspit before it can be used.

“This cesspit has not yet been constructed and sewage system leaks fall under the competence of another authority,” it said.

Mepa pointed out that dust screens should be used on stockpiles at all times, irrespective of weather conditions, and they should be positioned strictly within the site perimeter. All vehicles should be cleaned before reaching the site and before leaving, in order to prevent overspills onto the sensitive surroundings as much as possible.

In view of site restrictions, the cleaning of vehicles and machinery should be carried out without any residual overspill onto the road and valley. Periodic cleaning of the road should be carried out to remove overspills. Further to the conditions mentioned in revised method statement and above, the generation of dust and overspills should be minimised as much as possible through the use of best practice methods in accordance with the Construction Site Management Regulations (2007).

“These mitigation measures have been effective, as there is no evidence that debris has fallen into the watercourse,” Mepa said.

It added that if the conditions imposed are not adhered to, enforcement action would be taken.

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