Maltatoday, 17 February 2010, by James Debono

Any possible benefits which could arise from removal of the existing Ghadira road are “more than nullified” by negative impacts on the natural heritage, a report by MEPA’s Natural Heritage Panel (NHAC) says.

The claim that re-routing the road would lead to the regeneration of the sand dunes still needs to be subjected to further studies, the report states. The NHAC provides professional advice to the authority on conservation of the natural heritage.

The panel is therefore calling on MEPA to out rightly reject the three proposals to re-route the Ghadira road through the construction of a tunnel, a bridge or a road passing behind the Danish village and limit environmental impact studies to the proposal to upgrade the present road.

According to the report, the EIA on upgrading the present road should also consider two other options: namely, a “do-nothing” option in which case the existing status quo is maintained with very minor interventions; and a “do the minimum” option, in which the necessary upgrading of the current road on the existing footprint is effected in order to rationalize traffic flow and parking.

The report dismisses the other three options, because these proposals are expected to result in significant negative impacts on the natural heritage including topographical, geological and hydrological modifications, direct impacts on the garigue habitats, agricultural land uptake, and major visual intrusions on the landscape. The new route would be unacceptably close to the Ghadira Nature Reserve and the protected marshland known as il-Hofra, and would seriously compromise the integrity of these important sites.

The massive intake of agricultural and garigue was recently confirmed by a project Development Statement, authored by architect Martin Attard Montalto, chief officer of the Road and Infrastructure Directorate of the Transport Authority. The report lists the land intake of each of the four proposals being considered in separate MEPA applications.

The construction of a new route and tunnel, located inland behind the Danish Village, will encroach on 20,068 square metres of agricultural land, 830 sq.m. of garigue, and 15,450 square metres of land earmarked for the Foresta 2000 afforestation project. On the other hand, the construction of a new road and bridge also located inland behind the Danish Village will encroach on 9,970 sq.m of agricultural land, 10,140 sq.m of garigue and 11,768 sq.m on the Foresta 2000 site located below the elevated bridge.

The widening of an existing track, also located inland behind the Danish Village, would affect 9,060 sq.m. of garigue and 17,521 sq.m. of Foresta 2000. On the other hand according to the PDS the upgrading of the existing road, affects only 740 sq.m of garigue and 3,260 sq.m. of land already covered by Foresta 2000 trees.

The upgrading of the existing road is deemed “acceptable” by the NHAC report because the impacts on the natural heritage of the proposed upgrading are expected to be of a minor significance especially if environmental concerns are addressed at the EIA stage. The controversial plan to replace the existing road originally proposed by Transport Minister Ausitin Gatt was put on the backburner last October, when the government decided that EU funds earmarked for the project were to be redirected towards the construction of a new junction at Kappara.

Studies on the Ghadira project, however, continued over the past months while the project disappeared from the media spotlight.