Image taken from Start Campus' website on projected image of data centre when it is fully completed
Image taken from Start Campus' website on projected image of data centre when it is fully completed

Operation Influencer: Sines’ data centre has destroyed protected habitats

ICNF reports following inspection

The Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF) has confirmed that the construction of a data centre in Sines – the same centre  embroiled in controversy due to the investigation that brought down the government – has effectively destroyed at least one priority natural habitat that is protected by Portuguese and European legislation.

In a statement sent to the media, the ICNF explains that it “carried out an inspection action between November 13 – 17, coordinated by the Algarve and Alentejo Regional Directorates, with a view to investigating the possible destruction of priority habitats in the Sines Data Center area”.

“Following this inspection, it was found that the condition of guaranteeing the integrity of the temporary pond identified in the ICNF’s first opinion, relating to the construction of the first Data Center pavilion in an area outside the Special Conservation Zone (ZEC) of the Southwest Coast, had not been met, with the building having been constructed on top of the identified area,” the statement reads.

The institute also recalls that, in addition to the temporary pond identified partially outside the Special Area of Conservation, two other temporary ponds were identified on the site of the data centre project. 

The Environmental Impact Statement for the project was only approved on condition that the project’s promoters adopted measures to “compensate for the loss of habitat”, including the “translocation of Erica ciliaris specimens (a species of heather) identified in those areas”.

Erica ciliaris is also known as 'Dorset heath'
Erica ciliaris is also known as ‘Dorset heath’

However, “in the inspection carried out, the ICNF noted that, of the two sites identified as containing vegetation to be translocated, one has been partially landfilled and the necessary Environmental Compliance Report for the Implementation Project (RECAPE) has not yet been submitted by the promoter, while the second, probably due to environmental changes, is invaded by exotic species“.

“The ICNF states that it has informed the Alentejo Regional Coordination and Development Commission of these conclusions, the entity responsible for investigating and deciding on the administrative offence proceedings relating to the non-compliances detected, as well as determining precautionary and/or preventive measures, and the possible application of ancillary sanctions,” says the ICNF.

“The General Inspection of Agriculture, the Sea, the Environment and Spatial Planning was also informed for the purposes deemed appropriate, as well as the Portuguese Environment Agency, as the Environmental Impact Assessment Authority,” the institute emphasises.

As Observador online reported earlier this month, the Sines data centre project covers land that is home to three temporary Mediterranean ‘charcos’ or ponds, natural habitats ‘protected by European and national legislation’.

A large part of the land is covered by the Special Conservation Zone (ZEC) of the South West Coast, while a small portion is outside it. Two of the ponds on the land are entirely within the ZEC, while another is right on the edge, lying partly inside and partly outside the protected area.

One of the main controversies surrounding the data centre has to do with the fact that the first phase of the project (called “NEST”) has been exempt from an Environmental Impact Assessment. This is the first module of the data centre, which is being built precisely on the portion of land outside the protected area. The condition for this judgement was that the installation of the first module would not jeopardise the temporary pond on the edge of the protected area.

The exemption from the Environmental Impact Assessment for the first phase of the project also meant that the second phase of the project – already planned for the part of the site covered by the ZEC – would be subject to this assessment. This expedient was not viewed favourably by environmentalists: Francisco Ferreira, of ZERO, told Observador that he saw the decision as pressure to ensure that, when the second phase of the project was submitted for environmental assessment, there would be no room for a negative opinion – since construction would already be underway

A fortnight ago, biologist Rita Alcazar, from the League for the Protection of Nature, told Observador that one of the temporary ponds had already been destroyed by the construction of the first module of the data centre. 

“Rita Alcazar, who was one of those responsible for the European-funded project that mapped the temporary ponds, couldn’t hide her sadness at the fact that a “priority conservation” habitat had been destroyed”, said the online.

“The initial phase is already under construction. At the moment, if you look at the images available on Google, the data centre has already been built on top of one of the temporary ponds,” she said. “What I think is important to note is that the Portuguese State has a legal obligation to protect these habitats. There is a legal obligation.” And yet…

As Observador explains, Sines data centre is at the centre of Operation Influencer.

“In the wiretaps of the operation, there are multiple references to attempts to circumvent the environmental protection of the area, based on the alleged influence of the (Start Campus) company’s directors on the government, namely through João Galamba, businessman Diogo Lacerda Machado (a close friend of Costa’s and hired as a consultant for the project) and Costa’s chief of staff, Vítor Escária.

“The former Secretary of State for Energy, João Galamba, until recently Minister of Infrastructure, is quoted in wiretaps in which he suggests that the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (ICNF) should rectify the boundaries of the protected area to allow the project to go ahead.

“In a conversation with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Vítor Escária, Secretary of State João Galamba even recalls the Freeport case, in which the boundaries of a protected area were also rectified” (again, by a Socialist government).

Equally concerning is the attitude of Portugal’s political leaders ‘generally’. Even after he had tendered his resignation – which was immediately accepted by President Marcelo – outgoing prime minister António Costa addressed the nation for a second ‘speech’, during primetime Saturday evening viewing, to insist that Operation Influencer should not be confused with the necessity for freedom of political action. He cited the ‘importance’ of developing lithium mines, and the data centre in Sines – referring specifically to what he termed “conflicts” on the ground in Sines (in 1971 it was flagged as a zone for industrial concentration, and then in 1995 the protected Southwest Alentejo Natural Park was created, and along with it special conservation zones in Sines…)

“We mustn’t put ourselves in the paralysis of not complying with the law”, he told his audience. “It is up to the government, any government, to ensure proper coordination between the different organisations and to ensure that the end result is the best satisfaction of the general public interest”.

Source material: Observador/ Diário de Notícias