MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | AFM explosives story wreaks havoc at Castille

NEWS | Sunday, 18 May 2008

AFM explosives story wreaks havoc at Castille

Karl Schembri

The Office of the Prime Minister and the Armed Forces of Malta went into overdrive last week after MaltaToday revealed memos detailing the extent of the danger of the illegal explosives store operated by the army in Nadur, Gozo.
Sources from OPM say the office was mobilised in a panic-stricken search for the memos that were shelved and forgotten for the last decade, warning of the impending catastrophe at the AFM base in Gozo.
At the same time, soldiers were rushed on site to separate the detonators from the high explosives – kept in the same garage till last Wednesday – moving the detonators into possibly equally unsafe conditions as they are now situated in a room just behind the AFM shooting range behind what is known as the buffer wall.
This goes against yet another memo sent by Maj. Spiteri in June 1998 and leaked to this newspaper, stating that “the room intended to hold the detonators is to be protected from adjoining storage bays by a wall constructed to Heavy Wall specifications”, with a “thickness of 680mm solid brick or 450mm mass concrete”.
Meanwhile Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono denied any knowledge of the explosives storage in Nadur even though her ministry was directly involved in negotiations with AFM over the relocation of the store.
“Personally, I was not aware that there exists an explosives storage at the AFM Qortin Depot,” Debono said last night. “I only came to know about it from the reports in the press.”
Chris Said, the former Nadur mayor and now junior minister for information, has not yet answered MaltaToday’s questions about his knowledge or otherwise about the illegal explosives depot in his locality. Nor did he react to the request to release all relevant documents in line with government’s claimed commitment to enact Freedom of Information legislation.
Although the official correspondence leaked to MaltaToday clearly shows direct correspondence between the army, the Gozo ministry and the prime minister’s office, all of them have been sitting on the warnings since 1998, with Lawrence Gonzi ordering “a full review of the situation” only upon learning that this newspaper was about to reveal the details.
But the new document reaching this newspaper in fact shows that a full and extensive review was already conducted as far back as June 1998 by Major M. Spiteri.
Under the heading “Construction of an Explosives Store at Qortin Base”, Maj. Spiteri had spelled out all the required safety measures that had to be introduced to reduce risk and provide safe working conditions for the AFM soldiers there.
After a detailed review of the site, Maj. Spiteri concludes that the Qortin base could not be used to construct an explosives store as it failed on all counts of safety.
“Considering the Net Explosive Quantity of the explosives regularly stores therein there is no actual site (at Qortin) which can be used and which would respect the safety distances required in this situation,” he wrote.
“To mention two examples a safety distance of 270m from public traffic routes carrying light traffic and 380m from a light structure such as the guardroom and accommodation buildings of Qortin are required.”
Until last Wednesday, the AFM insisted its garage was “relatively safe” while its own officers were busy removing detonators from the explosives store.
AFM also confirmed the site is also used for firing practice in clear breach of instructions given 10 years ago by then Alfred Sant’s defence advisor, Martin Scicluna.
“The only type of military training being conducted at the AFM’s Qortin Base is pistol firing,” the army spokesman said. “Firing practice is conducted under the supervision of AFM Firing-Point Officers, and the live-firing is conducted under strict Range Practice Regulations.”
Yet Scicluna warned 10 years ago: “In our judgement, the safety aspect must be dealt with immediately. With small arms training and the use of pyrotechnics taking place in the area there is a risk which is not acceptable and should not be taken. … the present location, slap in the middle of the living accommodation area, is unsafe and unacceptable.”
The AFM is also holding back information about the amount of high explosives used for quarries that is being held at the illegal store, although official documents speak of “some 4,000 to 5,000kgs and numerous detonators” at any one time.
The AFM said that “the amount of explosive material mentioned in the memo cited of 10 years ago referred more to the capacity of the store in terms of space, rather than the maximum quantity of explosive stored at the Qortin Base at any given time. The amount of explosive stored at the Qortin base is normally significantly less than the amounts quoted from the aforesaid memo.”
Scicluna had written a decade ago: “The store is not purpose-built for ammunition storage and is not earthed against lightning strikes. It is situated in the middle of the camp. An explosion could have catastrophic.”
Meanwhile the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA), entrusted with the safety of the AFM soldiers on site, and the police force, which is legally responsible for enforcing explosives regulations, are both declining to take a position on the issue.
By April 2000, AFM was reporting that “the explosives dump is in need of maintenance and refurbishment”, urging “for the necessary works to be made at the earliest in order to ensure that health and safety considerations are kept paramount”.
The revelation comes at a time when government and the police are stepping up measures to crack down on the illegal storage of explosives and fireworks, some of which in the midst of residential areas with fatal consequences.
Ironically, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said earlier this week that government was about to introduce harsher penalties for those caught producing and storing fireworks illegally.

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