Time for trans-national environmental cooperation

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The Baltic Times, TALLINN
Interview by Kairi Kurm
May 03, 2006

Estonia is still recuperating from its worst environmental disaster in history – two oil spills that tainted the Baltic state’s coastline and killed more than 10,000 birds. The government was impugned for its slow response to the disasters, and now the Interior Ministry is developing a six-year financial plan for future incidents. But the source of the problem – the growing traffic in the Baltic Sea – will remain. According to the Finnish government, the amount of oil being shipped through the Gulf of Finland has tripled in less than 10 years. The Baltic Times turned to transit company Estonian Oil Service (EOS) board chairman Arnout Lugtmeijer to discuss the recent spills and some possible methods to avoid future disasters.

What do you think of the government’s reaction to the oil spills that occurred this year?
It is not that easy to make a “quick” comment on this issue. This subject is very electorate-sensitive for politicians, and therefore quick and simple solutions are sought, and quick and simple accusations are made to identify those people to blame and those who should pay. It should be noted that the origin of the two spills were very different, with only the type of pollution [fuel oil] being similar. The first incident [in January] probably involved an oil carrier, whereas the second spill [in mid-March] involved a bulk cargo ship traveling in a caravan. An icebreaking vessel was leading the convoy of ships, and as the line slowed down the unlucky [Runner-4] vessel slowed at a different pace and therefore collided with the ship in front of it. The ship eventually sank, leaking a large amount of its marine fuel into the sea.
In my opinion, the government’s task is to provide uniform rules and regulations to reduce the probability of a marine accident occurring. It is also responsible for diminishing the consequences of such accidents if they happen.

What do you mean by the uniform rules and regulations?
I believe that a country can only achieve a certain degree of control if a uniform and common policy is created for all countries on the Baltic Sea. If one country unilaterally decides to implement a certain taxation policy or regulatory measures that make [its waters] less economically attractive to pass through, it will only result in transit through other ports with the same degree of – or lack of – control. But the cargo will still be passing its coastline.
As for taxation, it is only fair when the “risk contributor” is presented with the bill – i.e., the shipping companies.
In Estonia, Tallinna Sadam [Tallinn Port] has recently increased fees levied to ship-owners in return for the utilization of port infrastructure for oil tankers. Since the levies for tankers are proportionally more than for other cargo ships, this justifies the additional expenses incurred for equipping the port with new tools to limit the consequences of an oil spill.
This system should also apply to the technical and operational requirements of any ship passing through the Baltic Sea. But the port must provide a way of policing these rules, so as to ensure compliance.

What is the best solution for diminishing the consequences if a future oil spill should occur?
It would be advisable for the Baltic Sea countries to jointly, as with NATO, establish a “rapid reaction force” that is adequately equipped to deal with potential pollution calamities. In my opinion, it would be inefficient to equip each country individually with the means to deal with oil pollution. Aside from the efficient use of clean-up equipment, a special task force could be established with highly trained experts in pollution control.

Is it accurate to assume that we would not have had these accidents if the Baltic Sea’s traffic weren’t so heavy?
One should recognize that the economic activity among the Baltic Sea countries and around the Finnish Gulf has dramatically increased after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the arrival of thriving new economies. This has resulted in increased trading and transportation requirements for all types of cargo. Additionally, the significantly higher output of crude oil and oil products from Russia in the past three to four years has provided for increased liquid cargo volumes.
So it is fair to say that traffic has significantly increased in the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, this also means that the probability of accidents or calamities occurring has also risen. If no additional regulatory rules are established, it will become increasingly difficult for Baltic Sea countries to contain pollution. This is especially true if they go without the proper equipment, adequate training and international coordination.

How do you feel about Environment Minister Villu Reiljan’s plan to tax transit companies with 2 kroons per ton?
Consequently, the establishment of the Oil Fund does not meet the abovementioned objective of establishing uniform rules and regulations. Therefore, the plan will not trigger a reduction in the probability of accidents. If the transit tax were to be established at 2 kroon per ton, and if the quantity of oil passing through Estonia remained steady and the annual funds we receive – which are approximately 60 million kroons per year – would be used to purchase equipment, then maybe the objective of diminishing consequences would be within our reach.
However, as history has shown with ice-breaking fees, which are collected by the government year-in and year-out in a greater extent than required, when extreme winter conditions prevail and an additional ice-breaking capacity is required, the funds are still spent elsewhere.
Source: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/15277/

Estonia’s oil transit threatens Baltic Sea

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The Baltic Times, TALLINN
By Kairi Kurm
May 03, 2006

Estonia’s prime location on the Baltic Sea has long provided it with profitable transit business, and, at least in the eyes of Russia, is one of the country’s most valuable features. But as Estonia saw earlier this year, when two tanker oil spills created the nation’s worst ecological disaster, managing oil transit across the Baltic Sea can have serious repercussions. “The Baltic Sea, especially the Finnish Gulf, is very vulnerable due to its peculiar geography.

The Finnish Gulf makes up only five percent of the Baltic Sea and has a low sea level, with an average depth of 37 meters. Yet there is an ever increasing Russian transit passing through it,” says Ivar Tamm, a spokesman for the Estonian Nature Fund. Some blame the accidents on heavy traffic in the Baltic Sea. According to the Finnish government, the amount of oil being shipped through the Gulf of Finland has tripled in less than 10 years. Much of this comes from the new oil terminal in Primorsk, Russia, which opened in 2001. And based on Moscow’s plan to increase capacity at Primorsk, the area will only become more crowded.
The Ministry of Interior Affairs has admitted that the growing amount of cargo transported across the Baltic Sea is an increasing threat. The most dangerous areas are those near the harbors – the gulfs of Muuga, Tallinn, Paldiski, Kopli and Narva.
“Looking at the events that have taken place in Estonia, we can say that the likelihood of sea pollution is high,” said ministry spokeswoman Kristina Kareva.

Tamm, however, believes the problem lies elsewhere. “I would not say the traffic is too heavy. It is relative. It is the administration that has not managed to catch up,” he said.
Other officials see it as the European Union’s problem, since the vessels that pass through the Baltic Sea are international.

Passing the blame

After two of the worst oil spills in Estonia’s history, the Interior Ministry has allocated hundreds of millions of kroons from next years’ budget to cope with future disasters.
The first spill was detected off the coast of northwestern Estonia on Jan. 30. Since none of the vessels sailing on the Baltic Sea at the time admitted to the spill, the government began an investigation. Investigators followed a Liberian-flagged tanker, the Flawless, which had earlier announced an oil-pumping accident as its first suspect.
In the following weeks, Estonian officials were heavily criticized for their slowness to react, both in terms of clean-up and the investigation. As the ecological consequences became more severe, the government scrambled to cover up for its incompetence.
Then, on March 6, a second oil spill occurred when a Dominica-flagged cargo ship, the Runner- 4, collided with a second vessel and sank. The ship was carrying 102 tons of heavy fuel, 35 tons of light fuel oil and 600 liters of lubricant oil in its tank. This time, the ecological consequences were far worse.

Ornithologists estimated that 10, 000 birds were killed by the oil, although officially only 4,000 were found. For weeks, volunteers worked with the Estonian Nature Fund to clean the beachside, and attempted to rescue oil-sodden birds. According to Helena Loorents, a spokeswoman for the Estonian Border Guard, 50 tons of oil had spilled into the sea.
Again, the Estonian government was lambasted for its slow response. Shortly after the disaster was announced, three parties launched a vote of no-confidence against Minister of Environment Villu Reiljan for withholding information about the spill.
Interior Minister Kalle Laanet was also blamed for not having prepared an appropriate action plan, as he had promised after the first oil spill. Laanet responded by lamenting the ministry’s poor budget, and quickly drawing up a six-year investment plan.
Minister Reiljan suggested creating an Oil Fund and collecting five 5 kroons (0.33 euros) per ton of oil from transit companies. The minister was forced to bring the fee down to two kroons per ton, as transit companies did not agree to his first proposal.
At the end of March, a crisis management team was formed by members of the Rescue Board, Environmental Inspectorate, the Board of Border Guard, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of the Interior, the Tallinn City Government, the Harju County Government, the National Nature Protection Centre and the Maritime Administration. The team will focus on coordinating pollution clean-up in Northwestern and Northern Estonia.

What next?

In Tamm’s opinion, it is crucial that Estonia improves its monitoring capabilities and legislation at once. “The fast discovery of pollution would decrease the effect immensely,” he says.
He admits that protecting the Baltic Sea is also the European Union’s problem, explaining that since the waters are joined, every activity related to pollution depends on international cooperation.
Estonia should both improve its readiness to act within its public institutions as well as trans-nationally, Tamm says, and set higher standards for those vessels sailing on the Baltic Sea, such as guarantees, ownership and technology that can identify possible leaks.
“It is important to work out financial mechanisms so that it’s not the citizens paying for the expenses that occur, but the insurance company or the oil fund,” he says.
Priit Looper from the Ministry of Economics and Communications agrees. Estonia alone, he asserts, can not do much to avoid oil pollution in its waters.

Estonia joined the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (The Helsinki Convention) in 1992 and the Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation convention in 1990.
Kareva says the Interior Ministry is working on a pollution-prevention plan in which they will detect the risks and work out a cooperation scheme for various ministries and institutions.
“Estonia’s readiness for sea pollution is incomplete in all areas, starting from prevention and discovery to liquidation and rehabilitation,” she said.
But slowly, Estonia is beginning to cooperate with its Baltic Sea neighbors, especially Finland.
Right now the biggest obstacle is money. The Estonian Border Guard needs an additional 107 million kroons to invest in various equipment. At the end of March, the board received 12 million kroons, and steps are being taken to receive more.
The Interior Ministry has written in its 2007 – 2010 budget to acquire two multifunctional ships worth 708 million kroons, two planes worth 108 million kroons, and two used ships from the Swedish border guard for 40 million kroons for pollution clean up.

Previous oil spills in Estonian waters:

January 1993: Approximately 104 tons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Tallinn from the tanker Kihnu. The salvage cost 15 million kroons.
April 1994: Fifty-three tons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Kopli from the super trawler Tamula. Damage to the environment cost 1.8 million kroons.
February 1997: Thirty-two tons of fuel spilled into the sea at Kopli harbor from the Arzamas training ship. A few days later the ship sank.
September 2000: About 250 tons of crude oil spilled into the Baltic Sea at Muuga Harbor from the oil-tanker Alambra. Damage per ton was 180, 000 kroons.

Source: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/15299/