Legal limits for sulphur dioxide emissions have been exceeded 36 times over four days just this week in Puente Mayorga, the small town adjacent to the refinery in the Campo de Gibraltar.
The data was highlighted yesterday on social media by Antonio Muñoz, the spokesman for Spanish environmental group Ecologistas en Acción, and came against renewed focus on both sides of the border about the quality of the air breathed by communities in this area.
In Gibraltar, the GSD reacted to statements by a visiting pollution expert who raised serious concerns after sampling air quality on the Rock.
GSD MP Trevor Hammond said the government needed to “start being honest” about how it read air quality, insisting that air pollution had worsened under the GSLP/Liberals administration.
But the Government hit back at Mr Hammond, defending its record on air quality and insisting the GSD MP did not understand the science behind such data.
The Puente Mayorga data was collected by the airACT application, which measures air quality in the area in real time within the framework of the European CAPTOR project on pollution.
According to the airACT data, sulphur dioxide levels in the area exceeded both legal limits and World Health Organisation limits 36 times over the four-day period.
Sulphur dioxide emissions are known to increase the risk of respiratory infections and cause great damage by acidification of natural ecosystems.
In Gibraltar earlier this week, a German pollution expert working with German environmental group NABU and Ecologistas en Acción sampled air quality and described some of his readings as “shocking”.
Dr Axel Friedrich, one of the experts who first highlighted the Volkswagen emissions scandal, told this newspaper that Gibraltar could do more to address particulate pollution from multiple sources including ship emissions.
But the visit to Gibraltar did not go without a degree of controversy, in particular because NABU appears not to have contacted the Gibraltar Government or indeed local environmental groups.
Yesterday on Twitter, Environment Minister Dr John Cortes defended the government’s record on tackling air pollution.
“A shame my friends from NABU didn’t get in touch,” he tweeted.
“Sadly they haven’t presented comparable data and aren’t aware of our work and progress in improving air quality. I hope they come and talk to me. We’ve much in common.”
His message received an immediate response from the group, which said it would make its data available and was ready to engage constructively with the government.
But, the Gibraltar Government yesterday questioned the validity of such data.
In a statement No. 6 Convent Place said the information collected in a short period by the German team quite simply cannot be taken as a representation of air quality in the area.
The Government flagged how details of the instrumentation used and the calibration of the equipment have not been made available.
It further highlighted how the samples were taken just as a ship was leaving port where of course there will be a spike in readings.
“This cannot in any way be compared to any average level or to the levels at any other port,” the Government said.
In a swipe at Mr Hammond, the Government said that in his race to “associate himself with what a German NGO, NABU, working together with the Spanish group Verdemar, well known for its repeated political statements against Gibraltar proves both his total lack of expertise and his willingness yet again to try and scare the community and provide Spain with opportunities to attack Gibraltar.”
“It shows Mr Hammond’s further failure to understand either science or statistics,” No. 6 said adding that the comments made by the NGO, taken out of context, are misleading.
Nonetheless, the Government appears set to face continued pressure on this issue, not just from international and Campo groups but domestically too.
Yesterday the GSD stepped into the debate and expressed “dismay” at statements given by Dr Friedrich to this newspaper earlier this week.
Dr Friedrich found that levels of air pollution here were many times higher than was acceptable under international standards.
He also highlighted that while his sampling was conducted over a short period, the conditions under which he took the readings were favourable and that in the summer months, air pollution was likely to be even worse.
“I have been raising concerns regarding air quality and its measurement in parliament since being elected,” said GSD Environment spokesman Trevor Hammond.
“It’s a very serious matter which directly affects the health of our community and the Government need to start being honest about it starting with the way they measure air quality.”
Mr Hammond said independent recording consistently indicated pollution levels “way in excess of acceptable limits”, yet Government figures rarely give a hint of this.
The GSD MP accused the Government of taking “virtually no steps” to address this issue.
Not only that, he said the government had made the problem worse in some instances.
“Selling the old buses cheaply to a local bus company without imposing restrictions on emissions, not using the best possible technology for the new power station should it have to burn diesel, the volume of construction meaning the town area is constantly filled with lorries belching smoke, not conducting rigorous emissions testing of vehicles undergoing MOT’s, not even showing any particular enthusiasm about making the dock yard provide shore power to ships in the docks as a condition of the new lease agreement,” he said, listing some examples.
“When it comes to the issue of air quality the situation has significantly deteriorated under the GSLP administration and despite their spin to the contrary, whenever independent sampling is conducted, whether it be by the World Health Organisation or by the likes of Dr Friedrich, their failure is exposed for all to see.”
For its part, the Government said that the measurements that Dr Friedrich made appear to be of particle numbers, rather than particle mass as measured in the Gibraltar Air Quality network, and therefore cannot be directly compared. Nor has the size of the particles recorded been mentioned.
“Therefore one cannot reach any long-term conclusions based on this report alone. As the GSD’s environment spokesman, Mr Hammond should understand this.”
The Department of the Environment and Climate Change is interested in the data, and will analyse them, having requested further details from NABU.
When these are received, the department said it will study these closely, “but it is not expected that this will establish that the usual levels of pollutants are anywhere near the peak detected on this occasion.”
“Mr Hammond’s claims about air quality in general are simply not correct, and interesting considering that his party, the GSD, wanted to place a heavily polluting diesel power station in the South District and wanted to block the move to the much cleaner LNG with their scaremongering tactics at the last election.”
They were also the party in power when bunkering fumes were at their very worst, a situation much improved now with vapour recovery systems in place, the Government added.
According to No. 6 published data show that air quality in Gibraltar is improving all the time, especially with the closure of the old South District power stations, “which the GSD had made no effort to deal with”.
Indeed, air quality data show that Gibraltar attained EU required levels on nitrogen oxides for the first time ever since records began in 2016.
“Mr Hammond is not aware of the work going into ensuring that Gibdock and other areas provide onshore power to vessels and so his claims that Government is not doing enough are spurious and indeed wrong.”
“Moreover, the move to LNG bunkering, which, subject to all the safety requirements, is being pursued, and which would reduce pollution from ships significantly is, like the new power station, something that Mr Hammond has been trying to block.”
Commenting on the statement, Minister for the Environment, Energy and Climate Change, John Cortes said: “Of course I want air quality to improve further, and will never be satisfied. That simply proves my commitment to driving this forward.”
“What we are doing by providing a new power station, burning LNG and with pollution reducing devices, closing down the old diesel plants, pressing forward with onshore power, working on reducing traffic and encouraging electric and hybrid vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and renewables, is totally unprecedented in the history of Gibraltar.”
“Trevor and the GSD are worried about this. That is up to them. Our air quality is better than it has been for many years and it will continue to improve.”
In a statement the Environmental Safety Group confirmed that NABU had made no contact with the group prior to their visit on the Rock.
“Had they done so they would have realised that we have been campaigning and fighting for pollution free Bay for close to two decades,” the group said in a statement.
The ESG has targeted local and regional sources of pollution with the CEPSA Oil Refinery forming a major part of its work in the early years.
Shipping emissions are also of concern to the ESG who has for some time now been advocating for onshore power connection for berthed vessels throughout the Port area also calling for best practice in vessels anchoring off Gibraltar to minimise emissions at anchor.
“We have also called for real-time monitoring to be set up in the NW region of Gibraltar to better understand the impacts from shipping and other activity with appropriate actions to then follow,” the ESG said.
“What is clear however, is that as NABU has been carrying out a Mediterranean wide study on coastal emissions from shipping they should have taken similar snapshot samples at each hotspot throughout the Bay especially the Algeciras Port and CEPSA Terminal and then release pollution data, in order to portray similar impacts from shipping activity of all types in the Bay area.”
The ESG said it will contact NABU scientists and will also share with them its concerns about the “serious environmental problems” of the area in the hope that they will look at the Bay situation holistically and take all factors into account.