Tuesday 31 March 2020

They can be on the same side when they want to 

Pictured above: Gharb fireworks factory explosion – Credit Gozonews.com

This article first appeared on Malta Today
This is not a tirade against fireworks themselves; I actually enjoy the beautiful, colourful designs and formations which light up our summer skies, and I admire the dedication, skills and techniques which goes into pyrotechnics. The noisy petards which scare the bejeezus out of all of us when we least expect it are completely unnecessary, of course, but the fireworks themselves? I have no quarrel with them.

My problem, and that of many others, lies with the fireworks factories and where they are situated. According to the Explosives Ordinance (the law regulating fireworks), fireworks factories have to be situated at least 183 metres from inhabited areas and a certain distance from roads used regularly. The significance of this stipulation hardly needs to be explained, but let me point it out anyway. Cast your mind back to all the kamra tan-nar explosions we have had over the years, and imagine if the factory had been close to a residential area, or close to a road where pedestrians and cars could be passing by.

In 2009 the St Mary’s Fireworks Factory of Mosta in Ras il-Wied, in the limits of Bidnija exploded, severely injuring one man who later succumbed to his injuries.

2010 was a particularly bad year. Two people died in a blast at St Sebastian fireworks factory near Qormi in February and another man died in an explosion between Zejtun and Marsaxlokk in May. There was also an explosion at a Gharghur fireworks factory in April, but luckily there were no injuries.

That same year, on the eve of the Santa Maria festivities in Mosta, there was more tragedy. One man died at the August 15 Pyrotechnic Society of Mosta factory at Dwejra, outside Mosta. The Times reported that “there was utter devastation all around the site, with boulders strewn over a wide area. A frantic search immediately started for people on the site – there had been as many of 15 who were preparing fireworks to be let off tomorrow and on Sunday.”

In September of 2010, perhaps one of the worst factory explosions occurred. According to Gozonews.com: “tremors were felt across the island when devastating explosions ripped through a fireworks factory near Gharb. Three explosions were clearly heard, and a large plume of smoke could be seen over the area. The factory had been busy preparing the fireworks for the feast of Our Lady of Victories.” Four people were killed, including a woman (believed to have been pregnant), while two others were critically injured. All but one of the victims were from the same family.

The San Bartholomeo Fireworks Factory of Gharghur blew up in 2013 but thankfully, no one was injured. According to a news report in Malta Today, “sources close to the investigation…said that no one was in the area at the time of the explosion, helping to avoid a devastating tragedy. Eyewitnesses said it was a “miracle” that no injuries had been reported as it was only thanks to Saturday’s storm that feast enthusiasts were not on site of the explosion.”

Even as I searched for the details of these explosions, the shock of just how many there were in such a short space of time, hit me again. But more disturbing is the realization that, apart from those who have perished over the years because they were working at the factories, we cannot overlook the fact that each explosion could have been much, much worse, leaving many more innocent bystanders behind. Why should the life of people who are just passers-by be at risk purely because politicians have decided that it would be a good idea to change the Explosives Ordinance?

Oh, haven’t you heard? Yes, that’s right.

In what is probably one of the few times there has been such amazing consensus, all our Members of Parliament unanimously changed the law (in an impressive record speed of 2 hours and 38 minutes) allowing the Commissioner of Police to permit firework factories less than the distance stipulated by law.

What this means in real terms is that the Police Commissioner can just consult PA (which will say it is a permitted use as they are also going to change the planning law) and a fireworks factory may be allowed close to regularly used roads and to the public.

If this is not enough to boggle your mind, there is more.

The reason the MPs changed the law was because of a law suit which had been dragging on in our courts for no less than 29 years. Some residents had challenged the legality of the location of a fireworks factory, because it was not within the legal distance. When the excruciatingly slow wheels of justice finally came to a conclusion and the Court of Appeal ruled in January that the fireworks factory in question was indeed too close (as per the Explosives Ordinance), our politicians came up with a brilliant solution. Last month, they just changed law.

What is the point of having a law which is then changed, basically shifting the goal posts, simply to suit whoever is affected by it? The whole basis of the law is that citizens have an expectation of LEGAL CERTAINTY – that the laws don’t change at whim. And if we are going to do this with this law, to appease fireworks enthusiasts, then why not other laws as well? Heck, why have laws at all, if MPs can go behind our backs and miraculously leave aside all their bickering when it suits them?

Can it get worse than this? Yes it can. The Planning Authority wishes to introduce a development notification order (DNO) to retroactively make all factories legal. And if the DNO goes through and all fireworks factories in the aerial survey maps are a permitted use, then basically if they are 2m away or a 100m away – the PA can just say it is allowed and the Commissioner can give it a licence.

One last point: when we say all MPs voted to change the law, we mean all of them, Labour Party, Nationalist Party and even the newly-fledged Democratic Party. It does not take much mental exertion to figure out why all these MPs are so firmly on the side of those who work in fireworks. This is one powerful lobby which has the political class very much in its grip.

And if you are an ordinary person who lives or works near a factory which is not the statutory distance away you have no remedy, except to move away (hopefully not next to another fireworks factory).

Every single one of us should loudly voice our objections and hold every single MP in our constituency to account. Expressing our sincere condolences when innocent residents or families walking by, are one day victims of an explosion from a newly-sanctioned fireworks factory, is simply not enough.


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