MaltaToday: Coming home to roost
NEWS | Sunday, 30 December 2007

Coming home to roost

If one had to surmise what makes people tick from their choice of television viewing, most of us seem to be voyeurs. We appear to be fascinated, to the point of obsession, by the distressing, sordid, scandalous and bizarre lives of others.
How else can one explain that even the presence of Kylie Minogue in “Dr Who” did not take viewers away from “Eastenders”, because finally after months of “will they, won’t they be found out?”, the affair between Stacey Branning and her father-in-law Max was uncovered?  Mild stuff really. But this is after all on BBC.
“Living” on the other hand is disgustingly outrageous and the public apparently loves it.
How else can one fathom the popularity of the Jerry Springer and Maury shows? What do people find so enthralling in guessing whether endless lines of men in drag are in fact men?
How many obese people can one watch being abusive, aggressive and violent while spilling out their guts in the most demeaning fashion? I am not usually vindictive, but  Jerry’s smug face brings out the worst in me. I wish he would fall in the cesspit he gleefully watches others wallow and drown in.
Rather than seeing other people’s tragic lives as entertainment, we would be better occupied taking a good hard look at our own troubles. Looking back at the departing year, we seem to have had little respite from the recurring problems: illegal immigration and the ensuing prejudice; firearms; safety, especially regarding fireworks and the construction industry; noise and air pollution; bird hunting and of course, MEPA.
We did, after years of prevarication by the authorities, get new construction industry rules, although time will tell how effective the implementation and enforcement will turn out. Also, due to EU pressure, bird hunting is finally being tackled. If anything, at least the threat of heavy EC fines should keep taxpayers’ interest finely tuned.
It might be the politicians who screw up, but we end up paying for their inaction and incompetence.
The importance of climate change is something our leaders like to laud abroad, but do precious little about here. While watching the fabulous fireworks display to inaugurate the adoption of the euro on New Year’s Eve, spare a thought to the men whose lives ended and to their families affected by tragedy due to their manufacture, and to the tonnes of pollutants released in the air.
Pyrotechnic explosions occur too often, but 2007 was remarkable in that it showed up that the government was not only aware of the risks, but that Cabinet had directly intervened in 2001 to bypass regulations, through a memorandum, allowing two factories in Għargħur to carry on operating by calling the road next to the factories “private”, reserved exclusively for “farmers, residents and fireworks factory employees”.
An explosion at one of the factories – Briffa – in 2000 had caused further explosions at St Helen’s. Both factories are located 130 metres short of the legally recommended safe distance from inhabited areas and are located less than 50 metres from the road that connects Naxxar and Tal-Ibraġ.
The law regulating fireworks factories, the Explosives Ordinance, states that there must be a 183-metre safety buffer from any inhabited place or street that is “used regularly”. The latter was the loophole used for the memorandum. As though the risk to farmers, residents and fireworks factory employees is negligible. How irresponsible is that?
Furthermore, the Government also buried a report identifying the two factories, among others, as unsafe in 2004. Instead of implementing the recommendations, the Home Affairs Ministry appointed another commission with the same remit and the public was still waiting for something to be done.
But the chickens have finally come home to roost for the government on fireworks safety. Thirty-three residents living close to the St Helen’s fireworks factory in Għargħur, which exploded last June killing five fireworks manufacturers, have sued the Government claiming it is ignoring the dangers posed by a neighbouring fireworks factory.
The residents have asked the court to determine the responsibility of the Prime Minister, the Home Affairs Minister and the Police Commissioner, among others, in failing to safeguard their Constitutionally prescribed rights.
One would have thought that the government would have felt a twinge of responsibility after the last explosion in Għargħur; instead, a judicial protest filed by the residents’ legal team a few weeks after the last blast, which had considerably damaged a number of  properties, was ignored.
Through the writ served on 14 December, residents claim that not only did the Government fail to protect the residents from the obvious dangers posed by the proximity of the fireworks factories, but it actually went out of its way to accommodate them (the fireworks factories).
The Police Commissioner also failed the residents when he allowed these factories’ permits to operate despite being responsible for ensuring that they did not pose a threat to third parties.
The wishy-washy Ombudsman’s report in May, which dealt with the matter, did not help either. It was not only vague in apportioning responsibility, but also irresponsible in claiming that the street in question is “used as irregularly as possible”, making the factories “legal”.
Rather than urging the authorities to immediately remedy the situation the report said that had the legal situation remained as it was, “the authorities responsible for licensing the firework factories... would risk falling foul with the Explosives Ordinance...” As though anyone has so far fallen foul of it, despite the many abuses!
But this last writ seems to have got attention because in between Christmas and the New Year the latest Commission have suddenly got their skates on and come up with a report, which they claim is ongoing, and which sped through Cabinet in time to reach the media before the New Year.
In this report it is recommended that “all factories observe the outside safety distance of 183 metres”. So is the government going to issue an apology for its irresponsible behaviour by issuing that infamous memorandum?
Don’t hold your breath. Although there are positive recommendations, the report is far from comprehensive. It is significant that one of the first things mentioned in the report is, “As far as possible the regulations already in place should be enforced”, and much of it covers old ground.
However, the noise, that causes such distress to the sick, dying, elderly, children and animals, as well as stress to those working irregular hours, was ignored. It only merited one line in a four page, 20-point list of recommendations: “enforce regulations which establish that sky fireworks should not be let off after 11.30 pm and ground fireworks not later than 1.30 am” What about the ones early in the morning and throughout the day nearly every day in summer?
The commission (it seems to consist of two members, Carmelo Magro and Peter Cordina) seems to have concentrated on hazardous chemicals (recent EC pressure at work again), although it is obviously too late for the big show on New Year’s Eve.
But it is recommended that from January 1, the amount of potassium chlorate assigned to each fireworks factory will be halved amounting to 750kg. The report also recommends that the relevant authorities ban the importation of ammonium perchlorate with immediate effect, since its use in mixing with chlorate is “extremely hazardous”.
An interesting point to emerge is that the army has not been keeping detailed inventories of how the explosive materials have been distributed so far, and there seem to be no records kept of how much potassium perchlorate and barium chlorate has been released.
All in all the report confirms the lackadaisical way the use and distribution of hazardous chemicals are dealt with here. The report recommends that this should be rectified.
It also recommends training, and that the structures of where fireworks are manufactured be rethought. But this is nothing new. A letter from Frank Galea in Zebbug to The Times last week told us that the prototype fireworks factory intended to serve as a model for others was drawn up in the early 1980s. Fewer than half of the “temporarily-licensed” factories satisfy the compound requirement with the relevant distances between the sections (that is, white powder room, rest room, store enclosure with blast walls, black powder room, etc). One such was the Għargħur factory.
Yet, all irregular factories have been issued with “temporary licences to operate” year after year for decades. If any new regulations, be they safety, be they any other, are published and enforced, more than half of these factories will have to be closed because they do not satisfy the criteria of space and distance. Which politician would dare do that with an election round the corner?
Indeed. It is all very well to come out with a report with some sensible recommendations, especially on explosive materials, but until we see some tangible results, and considering past experiences, one cannot but be cynical.

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