A personal opinion by Janet HowittWith the first direct flights to Madrid off the ground and the promises of even more destinations on the way isn’t it time we embraced better holistic planning in Gibraltar?
Enshrouding the recent airport developments in political terms makes it extremely difficult to see how an environmental impact assessment made retrospectively can be effective. In other words, the horse may already have bolted …and with the much talked about additional flights coming on line the question must be asked whether any current or future assessment can or will be respected and enforced? There has been little public debate on the negative environmental and social impacts from expanded airport activity. Instead we have heard much about implications for Gibraltar’s sovereignty, economy, land right issues and how this “historic development” is seen as an expression of maturing relations with Spain. All these are legitimate discussions and should be aired; Gibraltar’s unique and often difficult political situation is a reality that many of us have grown up with and recognise!
However, Gibraltar is also a tiny strip of land, densely populated where all major activity and any new development should be carefully scrutinised to ensure that a decent and healthy quality of life is preserved. Economics keep a community going, but the community must be allowed to thrive in good health and peace of mind if any material gains are to be enjoyed!!
The ESG wrote to Government a few weeks ago asking for details to be made public of any environmental assessments undertaken to date over the expanded use of the airport. So far, no reply has been forthcoming. The ESG is hopeful that the support pledged by Government for an independent, cross border epidemiological study on the impact on health of Bay communities from industrial pollution and other activity is a positive sign that environmental factors are being recognised. It is logical to assume that any major change in airport activity would receive similar scrutiny on its impacts. In the meantime, and in an effort to encourage debate on this very important subject in environmental terms, I have decided to air some of my own concerns in the hope and expectation that these already form part of the overall assessment being carried out by Government officials, engineers and technicians.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA’s)
Given the knowledge available today on the potential impacts on health from air and noise pollution and the way in which risk is assessed and managed, it is regrettable that EIA’s are not performed more widely and rigorously in Europe. While it’s possible that there may not be a legal requirement for an environmental assessment to be carried out over the existing and expanding airport activity in Gibraltar, it is clear, from our proximity to the runway that impacts exist and will increase with more flights and that these must therefore be measured accurately. If the levels of noise or calculated air emissions are deemed hazardous then permissions for the extra flights in the pipeline should not be issued.
We often hear comments about how frightening it is to have an airport in our midst at all given its’ proximity to sports fields, petrol stations, schools, residences and so on! Being a military colony we have often had to accept that some of our basic rights to health and safety protocols are simply not there; as an inevitable reality of being a British base; nuclear submarine repairs and berthing another example of this reality.
This does not change the facts. The runway is small and winds can, at times, influence the ability to land. In other parts of the world the issue of “land use compatibility” dictates that airports must be cited at least 2 miles from other non commercial infrastructure. This is not for whimsical reasons. It is because of the problems that airports create along with the much heralded economic and access benefits. Noise and air pollution and increased road traffic are all recognised as part and parcel of airport activity. Government has not published any EIA’s on the airport and so it is not clear either what risk assessment has been carried out. However small the risk may be, this too must be properly measured and contingencies put in place. Nowhere else in the world do you have athletes kicking a ball meters away from thundering hunks of steel travelling at breakneck speed! It is a horrible thought but the risk of accidents must be looked at if we are to face the reality of increased plane movements in our midst. A plane could be deviated just slightly due to a number of factors better known to experts but it’s quite possible that debris, birds, wind conditions or even, a terrorist attack, could trigger a series of events which would lead to untold tragedy due to the built up nature of the surrounds of the airport. These probabilities, however miniscule, should influence the number of planes which can safely be managed under all these eventualities.
It is clear that the existing road structure for the volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic is grossly inadequate and needs to be improved. No argument there. Nevertheless one has to then ask how this major project features in our much promised “Gibraltar Development Plan” which never materialises; this clear absence of open holistic planning continues to baffle those of us who sincerely believe that long-term planning practices would yield positive results with a more sustainable environment and improved day to day quality of life. Our size should not influence a lack of holistic management. On the contrary, it should be easier to share a common vision for the future in a small community than in a larger country. The current development mayhem in Gibraltar again supports the concern that we move very fast in matters of new constructions without progressing quickly enough in issues of health, pragmatism and the environment. Some of the consequences are clear to see with ill-conceived residential housing going up in close proximity to heavy industrial activity. This will undoubtedly create problems in the future for those “unfortunate” enough to have “been allocated” such affordable dwellings!! (Look at OEM next to Dockyard and Waterport next to power plants, bunkering jetties and an ever busier runway!!)
Returning to the airport, questions remain over what provisions are being made for pedestrian and cyclist traffic once the new road and tunnel are completed. Are there plans to provide transport for non-drivers? What about cyclists? Will they be able to cycle safely on the new road and through the tunnel? (will ventilation be installed to extract fumes from traffic that may back up in any delay??)
Any further increase in air pollution from aviation would be significant because of our already heavily polluted environment. This is mainly produced by the Oil Refinery and associated industry, power stations, bunkering and traffic fumes.
Air pollution in airports is usually produced by plane emissions on landing and take-off as well as storage and transfer of fuel. We must bear in mind the close proximity of this activity to schools, residential and recreational areas – especially our sports pitches where aerobic exercise promotes heavy and accelerated breathing ensuring pollutants are absorbed deeply into lungs with associated proven health impacts. Numerous studies exist to link various health disorders to different toxins such as those emitted from planes and traffic. Airplane emissions include nitrogen oxides, particulates, benzene, and carbon monoxide among others; Health impacts directly related to these pollutants include asthma and other respiratory problems. There is ample evidence locally of the high incidence of allergies and asthma in our children. Across the border, San Roque town boasts the highest Spanish figures for asthma and other respiratory disorders. This further highlights the pressing need for the cross border epidemiological study. We are geographically quite close to San Roque and quite likely similarly exposed to environmental factors which exist in the Bay and then easily exacerbated by our own sources of pollution.
Any increase in airport activity must therefore be measured in terms of potential increase in air pollutants and impacts calculated on users of the sports complexes, schools and residential areas.
It is thought that up to 18 flights per day could be handled at our airport if all the projected deals and contracts are signed. Timings of such flights needs to be scheduled for least impact and investment should be made by the authorities and relevant businesses that will profit most from the expansion in minimising the disturbance to daily life.
Investment would be specifically needed in noise abatement measures. This should include all areas assessed to be in the “black zone”, ie the front line. Although noise from the landings and take-offs is short-lived, it nevertheless is overwhelming and disruptive. Studies also exist which link excessive noise with the development of hypertension, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar, all of which place people at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Noise is considered to be a non-specific biologic stressor, eliciting a response that prepares the body for “fight or flight”.
Among the hundreds of studies on how noise affects student performances at schools one study states that children in schools exposed to airport noise were more likely to give up on a task, and less likely to succeed at simple problem solving compared to students in quiet schools. These effects were most marked in students who had been attending the noisy school the longest.
We all know that Gibraltar, like most busy cities, already suffers from excessive noise due to the ever increasing traffic and power stations. Military jet exercises in the spring and summer radically increase the noise impact from airport activity – It also interferes with traffic movement and creates painful and often frightening levels of noise.
If we are embarking on the intended airport expansion without adequately contemplating the unwelcome effects this will have on the quality and impact on our day to day lives this is highly regrettable. I hope I am wrong, and that these issues are being considered and that the airlines waiting on the sidelines understand that any airport expansion is not a guarantee; rather a possibility, which may or may not materialise if an environmental impact assessment declares such activity to be harmful or unsafe.
Unsustainable and not in keeping with our Environmental Charter principles
In the last couple of weeks, Stavros Dimas, the top Environmental Official from Brussels, , whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, announced that a series of aviation controls will be issued by the Commission to come into effect in a few years time. These controls will aim to make aviation in Europe accountable in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and “pay its way” via the “Emissions Trading Scheme”, in the battle against global warming. Even though Gibraltar is a mere grain of sand in the grand scheme of things, we, too, have a responsibility to control our local emissions along with everyone else.
Gibraltar’s recent signing of an Environmental Charter which sets out a number of principles on environmental performance and standards needs to be pursued in a sustainable framework. Doubling or tripling our emissions as we appear to be doing is surely not the way forward.
The recent review produced by Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the Government Economics Service and Adviser to the British Government on the economics of climate change and development (also ex World Bank economist), underlines how important it is for everyone, everywhere, to take these issues extremely seriously. The report confirmed that no change from our “business as usual” mentality will result in catastrophic consequences for our economies and way of life. This will inevitably affect us here in Gibraltar also.
So, I believe, that to listen to those who profess that airport expansion has to happen because Gibraltar’s economy depends on it is not telling the full story. Those same people cannot provide answers on how an inflated economy on the back of unsustainable businesses can withstand global recessions. What will happen when flying becomes too costly that we cannot operate our airport?
When tourists stop coming because no-one has money to travel? When fuel becomes so expensive we cannot operate our power stations and have regular power cuts? These are the questions we should be facing and acting upon today to ensure that we can continue to live in relative comfort independently of global insecurities.
An EIA on Airport to be published
I hope that I have adequately described my concerns about the need for proper environmental impact assessments to be done and published on the airport activity. As discussed, the impacts can be of a direct and negative nature on the day to day lives of people in the vicinity of the airport, as well as having implications for our environmental performance under Gibraltar’s Environmental Charter.
The Charter is obviously there to encourage us to alter our traditional ways by adopting more sustainable practices.
It is a time, surely, for Gibraltar to invest in clean, renewable energy, to develop holistic, modern management systems so we can all benefit from a Gibraltar which runs smoothly, free from pollution and congestion. Gibraltar needs an environmental policy which is tailored to meet Gibraltar’s unique needs and not simply react to European legislation.
We need to match our Environmental Charter with meaningful actions and aim to provide a healthy and thriving environment for ourselves and our families.