Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fragile Sliema caves worth less than staircases according to MEPA

Risk to Sliema caves from naval clinic development valued at €25,000

The fragile cave system, which stretches for 33 metres below the promenade and Tower Road, includes the iconic Ghar il-Lembi and Ghar id-Dud caves, which according to previous scientific reports are in danger of collapse.

James Debono
Malta Today 23 December 2015

A €25,000 bank guarantee has been imposed by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) to ensure that excavations under the naval clinic, to make way for an eight-storey development by the Gasan Group, do not damage the fragile underlying cave system below the naval clinic.

This bank guarantee imposed on the Gasan group, to protect the Sliema caves, is considerably lower than the €47,000 bank guarantee imposed on Polidano group in 2007 to ensure the protection of two unique internal staircases and other internal features in two traditional townhouses in Cathedral Street. The Polidano Group forfeited €14,000 of the €47,000 bank guarantee after the staircases were destroyed.  

The fragile cave system, which stretches for 33 metres below the promenade and Tower Road, includes the iconic Ghar il-Lembi and Ghar id-Dud caves, which according to previous scientific reports are in danger of collapse.

The permit which included the bank guarantees was originally approved last year but had to be approved again following minor changes proposed by the developer. 

The bank guarantee is lower than that imposed on developments such as the redevelopment of town houses in Sliema. 

When asked how bank guarantees are calculated and why this particular bank guarantee was lower than that imposed in other cases, a spokesperson for MEPA argued that “heritage-related bank guarantees vary according to the heritage in question and whether the risks are perceived to be minimal, medium or high”. 

The spokesperson claimed that the bank guarantee is equivalent to the cost of restoration works and is forfeited if the perpetrator does not restore the damage and the works are “carried out by MEPA using the bank guarantee”.  

According to the MEPA spokesperson heritage-related bank guarantees are approved by the MEPA board and revised from time to time to reflect current market rates for certain restoration works.

No big risk to caves 

During the processing of the application the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s Environment Directorate (EPD) had expressed concern about vibrations from excavations required for developing by the Gasan Group of a two-level car park beneath the Sliema pjazzetta on the underlying Ghar id-Dud cave system. Similar concerns were expressed by the Sliema council.

But the Planning Directorate concluded that these excavations could still be carried out in a way that would not endanger the Ghar id-Dud and Ghar il-Lembi caves.

The EPD noted that the proposed underground car park beneath the pjazzetta is directly adjacent to the area identified as “moderately sensitive” to “external stress” in terms of cave and ground stability in a survey carried out in October 2004. 

The study was conducted to assess the impact of a car park which had been proposed below the existing promenade, in the immediate vicinity. 

Plans for the development of this car park were shelved by the previous administration after MaltaToday published the results of these studies. 

According to the report, Ghar il-Lembi has a “very weak” internal stability and could collapse in the “short term” while the internal stability of Ghar id-Dud is “weak” but not as weak as that of Ghar il-Lembi, making its collapse less imminent.

The EPD raised concerns on the works to be carried out in the vicinity of the sensitivity zones and requested that the underground car park be down scaled to avoid excavations in the area nearest to the sensitive zone and called for a targeted geo-technical study to assess the impact of excavations in the other areas. 

According to the EPD, since several karstic features are known to occur in the area “it cannot be safely assumed that the vibrations will not travel to the high sensitive zones, potentially causing adverse effects to the cave systems”. 

While taking note of these comments the Planning Directorate concluded that the proposed car park under the pjazzetta is further away from the sensitive area. The Planning Directorate insisted that the sensitivity zones do not extend below the open piazza. Moreover the 2004 report also states that in the areas of moderate sensitivity like that immediately in the vicinity of the proposed car park, small scale works can still take place if adequate precautions are taken.

A report commissioned by the Sliema local council in 2007 revealed that the faulted coast along Ghar id-Dud is retreating rapidly by the dislodgement of boulders along joints and faults, affecting the stability of the Tower Road promenade. The report warned that this could lead to either partial or total collapse of the caves, resulting in the promenade literally “caving in”, and causing a tragedy.

“If collapse is sudden and during daytime or early night time, injury and loss of life may result,” the report by Geotek Services warned.

€23,000 guarantee for facade

A further €23,000 bank guarantee is also being imposed to protect the remaining façade of the naval clinic, which was illegally demolished. The developers were fined €2,300 for this illegality because the application predated the introduction of the hefty fines introduced in 2012.

The MEPA board had already approved the permit last year but had to meet again to consider a modification of permit conditions to reflect the actual drawings approved by it. No changes were made to the bank guarantees approved last year.

The money deposited in the bank guarantee will only be released by MEPA following completion of the works. The developers will have to forfeit the amount if the permit condition is not abided by and MEPA is not precluded from taking further action to ensure that the condition is adhered to. 

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