It is not yet known what will become of the site in Birżebbuġa where the fuel storage tanks are presently sited, and who will be its occupant, according to the Ministry for Energy.
The Malta Independent on Sunday asked the Ministry what will happen to the site once the tanks have been decommissioned and the cold standby period is terminated. It also questioned if the area will be returned to the government or if it will remain occupied by Enemed. The reply was that “this is being discussed internally”.
A project that has been in the making since 2014 will see the Birżebbuġa fuel depot being shut down and the oil products being stored there moved to Ħas-Saptan. It was reported that the Birżebbuġa plant will be decommissioned by the end of this year due to its non-conformity with the EU standards. The tanks were originally erected in 1919.
In 2015, Enemed filed a planning application for infrastructural works at Ħas-Saptan, which was approved in 2017. Energy Minister, Joe Mizzi confirmed earlier this year that works on the €55 million project were well underway, looking to it being operational by the start of next year.
When asked by this newsroom to confirm the progress of the Ħas-Saptan project, the Ministry again confirmed that the project is well underway, in line with the plans, and is expected to become fully operational in 2020.
The minister had previously said that when the Ħas-Saptan project reaches its conclusion, towards the end of the year, the transferring process will commence.
Enemed executive chairman, Kevin Chircop had also noted that once this happens, the Birżebbuġa facility will be placed on what is referred to as a cold standby, meaning it will be kept as a standby for a pre-defined period.
The decommissioning of the storage facility commenced on 12 May 2017, with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Minister Konrad Mizzi being present on the day when the roof of the first tank was taken down.
When asked by this newsroom when all tanks in the Birżebbuġa plant will be dismantled and decommissioned, the Ministry replied that since Enemalta plc is the owner of the facility, Enemed did not have any information. It confirmed, however, that it is awaiting a reply from Enemalta on the matter.
The Ministry did, however, confirm that the cold standby period is estimated to be six months.
Birżebbuġa oil seepage – no reports in recent weeks
Earlier this year, Enemed pledged to address the fuel seeping into the sea in Birżebbuġa, which had been leaking through the rocks for several years. This was done by digging boreholes near its facility in Birżebbuġa, along the shore close to the point from where the oil was observed to be seeping into the sea. In addition to digging new boreholes, the company had said that a “relative structure” had been installed to reduce contamination.
The Ministry has now confirmed that in these last weeks there were no reported leaks into the sea.
It did note, however, that in the event of a leak, Enemed’s personnel will report immediately since the Ministry conducts daily inspections on site. The protective boom installed by the company will also prevent any leak from moving into the open sea, the Ministry added.
It was also confirmed that the boom has been left in the sea only as a precaution in case seepage from a new point occurs.
The Ministry also said that since the problem has been brought under control, no new boreholes are being dug and it is not anticipated that new ones will be required in the future.
Enemed had pointed out that seepage was not coming from the tanks but from the fuel that had been lying in the rocks for many years. It had accumulated there following many incidents over the years, including the placing of a bomb. Shell had at one point taken temporary measures to address the problem.
After seeking expert advice, Enemalta had built a plant to collect the oil in strategic areas, making its collection easy. This was finished in 2001 and the plant was still being used, although the liquid being collected now only contained minor traces of oil if any at all.
Enemed had said that although the problem had been mitigated, fuel was once again seeping from different areas, just as the experts had predicted. It had to dig new boreholes to catch this oil and the amount of seepage dropped drastically as a result, so much so that only water was collected for long periods.
This, the company had said, proved that the problem was not created recently but was the result of incidents in the past which had always been addressed by temporary solutions.