Residents living close to two fireworks factories close to Għargħur, one of which exploded in 2007 killing five men, are putting up a legal fight to stop the renewal of a licence they fear would put their lives in danger again.
They are seeking to enforce an out-of-court agreement signed by former police commissioner Laurence Cutajar binding the police from reissuing a permit to the St Helen’s Fireworks Factory, situated on the village outskirts.
The facility had been flattened in 2007 when a series of explosions claimed the lives of five people, including the licencee, Vincent Galea. Sunny Borg, Richard Cardona, Paul Bonnici and Carmel Farrugia also lost their lives.
The first blast, which hurled stones and debris hundreds of metres away and, in some cases, breaking windows and shutters in villas in the surrounding area at Xwieki, was followed by a second one almost 30 minutes later and a third shortly after.
Following the accident, residents got together and obtained a temporary court order blocking the renewal of the licence for the factory and an adjacent one belonging to Charles Briffa.
Factories stand closer to nearby houses, built much earlier, than the distance laid down by law
People living close to the factories also sued the government over the matter.
The factories stand closer to nearby houses, built much earlier, than the distance laid down by law and less than 50 metres from the road that connects Naxxar and Ta’ l-Ibraġ.
The law regulating fireworks factories, the Explosives Ordinance, states that there must be a 183-metre safety buffer from any inhabited place or street that is “used regularly”.
The court case dragged on for years and, in 2017, the police commissioner at the time had signed an out-of-court settlement that effectively led to the withdrawal of the case. In the deal, the head of police committed not to issue a licence to the two factories.
The police refused to answer questions related to the agreement, asking Times of Malta to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The residents have been seeing increased activity at the fireworks factories as efforts mount to renew the licence that would enable the St Helen’s Fireworks Factory to have its own production facility again.
When contacted, André Azzopardi, the secretary of the Għaqda tan-Nar Santa Liena 18 ta’ Awwissu, said he was aware of the “secret” agreement as he had heard about it through the grapevine. However, the committee was insisting on relocation.
“Until 1982, we had our own factory in Iklin. When buildings encroached, we were relocated to a temporary site in a quarry just outside Għargħur but this was always meant to be a temporary arrangement.
“After the tragedy, there was a court case and an agreement was signed behind our backs. We were never officially informed about it but we expect to be treated like other fireworks factories and either be given a licence or else given a site from where we can manufacture our fireworks,” he said.
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