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‘Government’s safety polices running on autopilot’

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The fire on June 11 at a tyre facility

Authorities came under fire in the House environment committee on Friday over glaring gaps in the collection, management and storage of recyclable tyres and the health and safety risks these pose with the government accused of allowing safety mechanisms to work on autopilot.

The four-hour marathon committee meeting came in the wake of a huge fire at a tyre storage and recycling site at Vasiliko on June 11 which set the fire service scrambling, prompted civil defence to urge residents to stay indoors and further infuriated local communities who have long been protesting the congregation of heavy industry in their area.

It also reignited discussion of a 2021 report by the auditor general that had pinpointed weaknesses in Cyprus’ tyre recycling programme and set out a list of recommendations.

The report was highlighted by the federation of environmental organisations (Opok) which said that it had pressed for the full implementation of the auditor’s recommendations during Friday’s committee meeting.

And as personnel from the department for the environment protested outside about understaffing, the federation cited the drop in government expenditure on environmental protection that has put Cyprus well below the EU 27 average.

Pointing to the significant increase in the responsibilities of environment department personnel, the federation called for full staffing of the department so that Cyprus can meet its obligations under the EU’s acquis.

There was disappointment from Greens and committee president Charalambos Theopemptou regarding promises for a fire station at the Vasiliko energy hub that have not been implemented, inspections that have not been carried out, confusion as to whether there was a safety plan for the site where the blaze broke out and the various excuses as to the causes for the fire, the Cyprus News Agency reported.

He noted that there is currently a lack of space to collect and manage tyres. “There are about 40,000 tyres in the towns, and this number is growing every day,” he said, adding that a solution – even a temporary one – must be found.

Akel MP Andreas Pashiourtides was more scathing. And he alleged that there had been no inspections of the site where the fire broke out from the  environment department since 2019, none from the department of labour inspection for two years, while the fire service has said it was never asked to give its views on the fire extinguishing system or the suitability of the location.

“The conclusion, if we had to reach a conclusion from this discussion, is that the policy of managing tyres or other waste and dangerous items by the Republic of Cyprus is on autopilot,” he said.

Disy’s Prodromos Alambritis said there were gaps and weaknesses by relevant services and the company in charge. “Every responsible authority must carry out the checks needed so that we can avert unfortunate incidents and not look to apportion responsibility after the event,” he said.

Collecting, managing and reusing tyres was exceptionally important to protect the environment and avoid seeing tyres disposed around the country. There was also a responsibility to protect the heath and safety of residents of nearby communities, he said.

Diko’s Christos Orphanides said he had tabled the issue for discussion by the committee from 2017 because of his concern over the possible outcome of moving thousands of tyres to the area. Assurances that there were no grounds for concern and that there was water to immediately extinguish a fire were not implemented, he said.

“The quality of life of residents in the area has reached its limits. Concerns have multiplied. The huge cloud extended to Larnaca and Famagusta,” he said, adding that it was unacceptable that a fire station is ready but has not been handed over.

Soritis Ioannou of Elam also pointed to the promise made by the previous agriculture minister for firefighting equipment, fencing, 24-hour guards and daily checks from the fire service, the environment department and labour inspectors. “None of this applies,” he said and Vasiliko area communities feel betrayed.

Edek’s Andreas Apostolou said the department of environment was understaffed and for years now cannot carry out its duties as it should. There were responsibilities as regards the frequency of checks and companies’ adherence to the rules and laws. “We will not agree to burdening Vasiliko area with any other unit,” he said.

Moreover, Apostolou said that the environment service and labour ministry should have permanent staff on hand at Vasiliko so that checks can be carried out more often.

And Lefteris Fokas, who is president of the coordinating committee of communities in the Vasiliko area, said residents would not allow any new factory in their area unless those already there upgrade their safety measures.

“We are prepared to close to the Vasiliko energy hub indefinitely with all the repercussions this will have for all of Cyprus. We will file a recourse to the European court and demand our rights,” he said.

The committee was pressing for a meeting with President Nicos Anastasiades, he said, noting that at a meeting in 2017 they had been promised that, there would be daily checks and a fire extinguishing system. “We want to discuss the problem with the president,” he concluded.

 

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