Charlene Smith outlines how the environmental impact assessment process is implemented in Malta
It is a daunting task to strike a balance between appropriate implementation of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process at a procedural level through relevant regulations and guidelines, and its substantive elements in terms of ensuring that any proposed development is sustainable – particularly for a small island state.
With a population of 516,100, Malta has been subject to significant demographic and urban growth since its first recorded census in 1842. This, together with its small size (316 square kilometres) and high population density (the largest in the EU, at 1,320 people per square kilometre), poses unique challenges for its environmental assessment and decision-making processes.
Developing the EIA process
The first development proposal to be subject to environmental assessment in Malta was the construction of a new thermal power station in 1989. The corresponding application for building permission in the area was controversial as it was in a greenfield site, close to a fishing village. Consequently, the first legal requirements for EIA in Malta were introduced in 1991 with the Environment Protection Act, with supplementary procedural guidelines issued in 1994.
The first dedicated set of EIA Regulations was published in 2001 and took into account both the state of the islands’ environment, and compliance with EU directives and regulations. Malta joined the EU in 2004, and the regulations were further amended in 2007 and 2017 – mostly reflecting the experience gained from previous years of implementation, and the new requirements arising from changes to the EU’s EIA Directive.
The present regulations, published in 2017 and revised through minor amendments in 2020, sought to cater for the appropriate and correct transposition of international legal instruments, including the revised EIA Directive, the UN Convention on EIA in a Trans-boundary Context, and EU regulations on trans-European energy infrastructure. They also aim to streamline Malta’s environmental and development consent procedures in order to reduce unnecessary administrative burdens.
The EIA Regulations are currently administered, implemented and enforced by Malta’s Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), which is designated as the competent authority for EIA in the country. The Planning Authority, on the other hand, is responsible for land-use planning and development permission.
The EIA process
The main steps are:
1. Submission of the Project Description Statement (PDS)
The PDS provides a concise description of the proposed development, including a description of the site and the development and its likely effects on
the environment, together with any mitigation measures being considered.
The ERA determines whether a proposal qualifies for an EIA or otherwise, in accordance with criteria set out by the EIA Regulations. A project falling under Category I would require a mandatory EIA, while a project falling under Category II would require detailed screening. Following screening, the
ERA has the following options:
- If a project falls under Category I, requesting the submission of an EIA
- If a project falls under Category II, requesting the submission of an EIA following detailed screening and identification of likely significant impacts on the environment
- If no likely significant impacts are identified during the screening process, screening a project out and thus not requesting an EIA
- The proposal does not fall within the scope of the EIA Regulations (in other words, it is below the thresholds stipulated by the same regulations and therefore does not require the submission of any studies).
The ERA, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, EIA consultants and project proponents, identifies the environmental issues relevant to the proposal being assessed. This includes the preparation of tailor-made Terms of Reference for the EIA to be carried out by the consultants.
“Malta’s small size and high population density pose challenges for its environmental assessment processes”
4. Preparation of the EIA Report
The environmental statement or EIA Report is prepared by a team of EIA consultants, and includes three main documents:
- A non-technical summary, presented in both the Maltese and English languages
- A co-ordinated assessment report
- The technical appendices, including the original baseline studies
- The content of the EIA Report needs to be in line with the requirements established in the EIA Regulations.
5. Submission and review of the EIA Report
Following the submission of the EIA Report to the ERA, the documentation
is reviewed by the authority and made available to all required stakeholders (including government entities, local councils and environmental non-government organisations) and the public for comments.
6. Public hearing
For projects falling under Category I, or as the ERA deems appropriate, public hearings are carried out to provide effective public participation and an opportunity for stakeholders to air their views on the proposal and comment on the EIA. In this case, the EIA consultants deliver a presentation to the public, discussing the main findings of the EIA Report.
7. The ERA prepares the final assessment
The ERA prepares a report that provides an overview of the EIA process carried out in relation with a development proposal, together with a summary of the EIA’s findings, the overall position of the authority and any mitigation measures identified over the course of the process. It is at this stage that the conditions to be part of the development permission are formulated, to be included if permission is granted. The overall position is then referred to the ERA Board for a decision, and the proceedings are deliberated in public. Once agreed, the ERA’s position on the proposal and its assessment of the EIA are referred to the Planning Authority.
The ERA report is considered in the compilation of the Development Permission Application Report before the approval or otherwise of development consent. The recommended position on the development proposal is then referred to the Planning Authority Board, which discusses and deliberates on whether to grant or refuse the development permission, in a session that is open to the public.
9. EIA follow-up
Following the approval of an application for development permission, the conditions set by the authority are followed up. This is carried out to ensure compliance with the mitigation measures identified through the EIA process and the assessment by the authority.
EIA in action
In 2020, the ERA carried out approximately 300 preliminary EIA screenings to determine potential EIA requirements, received 57 PDSs, carried out 42 detailed EIA screenings (41 of which did not qualify for further studies), requested an EIA for two cases, issued Terms of Reference for four cases, reviewed three EIA Reports, and concluded two final assessments.
Charlene Smith, PIEMA, is reading for a PhD in spatial planning and environmental assessment at the University of Malta, and has more than 15 years’ professional experience in the environmental assessment field.