Our excitement for HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation was in danger of being squelched when we heard that the production company had trashed a nature reserve. So we investigated — and thank goodness, it seems early reports were somewhat exaggerated.
We reported last November that the production company, Fire and Blood Productions, was filming a key scene in Game of Thrones and dumped some artificial sand on Dwejra, a protected beach area. Everybody agrees that Fire and Blood failed to abide by the conditions of a filming permit issued by the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA), with unfortunate results. Fire and Blood has apologized for the mishap, and blamed a subcontractor. Back in November, a former MEPA official named Alfred E. Baldacchino was warning that irreversible damage might have been done to the ecosystem in this protected habitat, both by the sand-dumping, and by the use of heavy machinery to clean it up.
The good news is, according to MEPA, no endangered creatures appear to have been harmed by the filming. After talking to both MEPA officials and Baldacchino, it now appears as though the main damage was to some valuable fossils in the area. (There's some dispute as to whether this damage will prevent the fossils being studied, plus whether some of this damage to the fossils might have come from earlier visitors to the area.)
Also, there is extensive damage to the rock pinnacles and ridges in the area, probably caused by the heavy machinery brought in to clean up the sand — and this could damage the "overall integrity" of the protected area.
MEPA issued its report on the damage to Dwejra on January 14, and their report reads in part:
The disturbance represented by the deposition of the extraneous sediment has not compromised the integrity of the terrestrial biological communities within the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) but impacts were localized... The present consultants' observations suggest that the impact of the deposition of extraneous sediment on the integrity of the biological communities within the SAC as a whole is likely to be negligible.
The report does note that some of the artificial sand, which may contain limestone, appears to have gotten into some of the area's rockpools, with some impact on salt production. (Salt being a major industry in Malta.)
A MEPA spokesman, Peter Gingell, tells io9:
The site is not a beach, but an area with exposed limestone rock. Vegetation assemblages are not present in the "area where the sand was dumped", but there are few individual plants, mostly Inula crithmoides and Arthrocnemum glaucum , which are two typical Mediterranean littoral species which are common in such littoral fringes in the Maltese Islands... The fossils found in the area can still be studied, and are also found elsewhere in the Maltese Islands.
Baldacchino, who's been one of the most outspoken critics of his former employer, disagrees with that last point, telling io9:
The technical report shows that irreversible damage has been done to the fossil bed on which the 'sand' was spread. The area is a very rich and important fossil deposit. Vehicles and other activities have left permanent damage.
(We tried to talk to someone from HBO or Fire and Blood about this, but they just referred us to their earlier statement, linked to above.)
Even though it's been largely ignored elsewhere, the damage caused by Game of Thrones filming has become a huge political issue in Malta, with the Maltese prime minister having to answer questions about it in Parliament recently. The Shadow Minister for Environment, Leo Brincat, has criticized the MEPA report as the work of biologists, who fail to appreciate the extent of the damage to the fossils in the region. Brincat has previously said the incident proves that MEPA is "complicit in the rape of the environment."
But still, it seems undeniable that Fire and Blood Productions — and everybody who wants to enjoy Game of Thrones without feeling a major spasm of guilt — has lucked out a bit.
The actual story of the Dwejra filming still sounds like a bit of a comedy of errors — according to Baldacchino, the production company didn't tell MEPA when they were going to be starting filming, as their permit required. They were supposed to put down plastic tarps before dumping the thick layer of sand, but instead they used a permeable mesh that allowed the sand to fall through. According to Baldacchino, the sand was actually "crushed quarry remnants" which included soil and clay.
Then it rained, turning the sand into a dense covering that was twice as hard to remove. And then there were the heavy vehicles and machines which they used to clean it up, again without notifying MEPA. (More details on the various missteps are here.)
So all in all, we should be glad that it didn't turn out a lot worse.