The Baltic Course

The Baltic Sea: hot-spots, problems and promises

By Inna Rogatchi, © Rogatchi Productions & Communications (Helsinki)

The BC asked leading experts to comment the basic ideas of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, also known as the Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM.

HELCOM is quite an authoritative international body focused on monitoring and improving environmental qualities of the Baltic Sea. Among its members are all the Baltic region's countries, and the EU as a cemented component.

The past decade since adoption of the new the Baltic Sea Protection Convention in 1992 could be qualified as the most active years of hard work done by HELCOM, which has certainly already brought out results. All the independent experts with whom we spoke to emphasize that in comparison to other regions in Northern Europe or Russia, the environmental situation on the Baltic Sea is much better and indicators show that development is moving towards improvement. Another point mentioned by all experts was that all countries in question seem to take the HELCOM regulations and recommendations quite seriously. This attitude will probably make things better and even more promising for the Baltic region.

In spring 2001, HELCOM made a new assessment of the situation on the Baltic Sea; an important evaluation made every five years with analyses of all changes, including recommendations for further improvement. Inevitably, such thorough assessment also indicates the most serious problems in the Baltic Sea environment.

We spoke about this with the Executive Secretary of HELCOM, Mieczyslaw S. Ostojski:

«The general situation in the Baltic Sea has shown a clear tendency towards improvement. As one of the most positive results, we could mention the quite efficient decline of DDT pollution, which has been dropped by more than 90% now since the end of 1980s. Still, the waters of the Baltic Sea are less clear and transparent today than they were fifty years ago». There are various reasons for this, starting from the massive dumping of chemical weapons after World War II, and ending with dramatically intensified agriculture and marine transportation all over the area.

Mr Ostojski also pointed out that: «We regard five big areas now as the most serious problems, each of these demands lots of persistent effort and multilateral work. These areas include the high concentration of nutrients, resulting, first of all, from intensive agriculture in the area; the presence of various hazardous substances, which is also one of our ultimate objectives, and we do have a special team working on this project exclusively due to its complexity and significance; the increase of transportation in the area which is leading to an extensive range of results; over-fishing is a growing concern; and physical disturbances in the area which might lead to a destabilization of the status already achieved».

Alexey Yablokov, academic, former special adviser to the president of the Russian Federation and member of the Russian Security Council:

«In comparison to the Arctic Seas (Barents, Kara, and White Seas), the Baltic Sea has been quite lucky, at least from the point of view of nuclear waste. The situation with chemical weapons in the Baltic is a serious one. But as for nuclear waste, Riga is no Murmansk. Even so, the very first Soviet dumping of nuclear waste, and needless to say, an action absolutely illegal from the point of view of international law, did take place in the Baltic Sea. This happened in 1960, and had to do with tests of nuclear submarines and a special issue of Soviet pride - the nuclear-powered icebreaker named Lenin. Back then one hundred cubic meters of liquid nuclear waste were simply dropped near Gogland Island in the Gulf of Finland. The radioactivity of this serving was 200 mKi. It must also be noted that Lenin's nuclear reactor was made with substantial amounts of cobalt. Eventually this lead to a very high level of so-called pointed activity of cobalt-60 in the area, at levels of at least 50 kKi. This circumstance had very far-stretching consequences. As a result of all the exercises with illegal and undeclared dumping of nuclear waste, the concentration of such dangerous components as Strontium-90 was substantially higher on the surface of the Baltic Sea in the early Nineties than was in all the other former Soviet seas, excluding only the Azov Sea. A good sign is that the indicators have bee improving since 1991.»

Yablokov made a point by emphasizing that «without fully adequate knowledge of the real situation and strong political will and commitment to pursue cleaning up the mess amounted over the past fifty years, no serious environmental problem has the chance for an efficient solution. I will always remember two remarkably similar episodes :in 1989 I was briefing Mikhail Gorbatchev on the real ecological situation and consequences of Chernobyl. He was terrified, and I do believe he was sincere then. Gorbatchev exclaimed: «But, Alexey, that's so awful! I swear, I had not idea. I just can't get how this could be possible: I was Chairman of the Politbureau, and nobody told me!» In turn, I then said: «The question is, Mikhail, did you ask about it?» Gorbatchev was then silent. Several years later I faced literally the same situation with Boris Yeltsin when I briefed him on The White Book, our report on the massive nuclear and chemical pollution of the Soviet and Russian seas. He was terrified in just the same way. «But how? How could this be possible? Why did I not know about it?» - the same sincere eyes were across Yeltsin's face . And again, I asked: «Did you ask about it, Boris?» and the same silence followed». Today things may be done quicker and Putin seems to be asking the uncomfortable questions; but the Russian government got rid of the State Committee on Ecology, and there is no state institution to replace it and implement the badly needed measures, also on the Baltic Sea region, especially in Kaliningrad, and this is a point that really concerns Yablokov. «No money» has become a mantra repeated over and over for years now. But the government does have money for building new ports on the Gulf of Finland, doesn't it? They do have money for building speedy railways - and at the same time, over the past decade they have been unable to find financing for ecological safety in areas where the situation is simply disastrous, such as in Kaliningrad».

Professor Lev Fedorov, internationally acclaimed as a top expert on chemical safety made a distinction between chemical weapons dumped into the Baltic Sea under Soviet and American-Anglo authorities back in 1947:

«Implementing the Potsdam Treaty, Nazi Germany's chemical arsenal was buried into the Baltic Sea in two large parts, one - under control of Soviet authorities, another - under joint Anglo- American control. The first part was dumped near Denmark and Lithuania, the second - between Sweden and Denmark. It is remarkable as to how, in more than fifty years time, we now all face a different situation because of the manner in how dumping of the lethal arsenal was conducted. Soviet authorities didn't do anything with their own hands, literally. They only supervised and commanded the process, which was entirely carried out by German prisoners of war. It was they who were ordered by Soviet authorities to dismantle the German chemical arsenal, carry it one by one, by hand, to the ships and then through it to the waters, again, one by one, with bear hands. This way managed to dump 12,000 tons of chemical weapons. The total weight of this 'gift' for the Baltic Sea should be measured at 36,000 thousand tons with the metal casing of shells. All in all, the Soviets controlled the dumping of 600,000 samples of chemical weaponry. The result is that now all the shells have disintegrated and are lying under water, mostly covered by sand and silt. This way they are far less dangerous than the shells dumped in masses by the British and Americans, dumped in bulk from ships. These shells lie in big groups, and pose much more of a risk, in particular, in situations where fishing-boats could pick them up unknowingly, or somehow damage them under water. The worst fact regarding chemical weapons lying in the Baltic Sea is that all the ammunition has lost its seal by now. It is really a serious problem, especially in conjunction with intensified fishing activities of all kinds; and that's why HELCOM still lists it among its priorities.»

In its latest assessment the Baltic Sea, HELCOM also pointed out several unusual and interested points. While concentration of heavy metals seems to be at a stable level, with a tendency towards reduction, in some cases, the concentration of cadmium is unusually high and getting even higher since the early Nineties. The reason for this worrisome tendency is unclear to scientists so far. Chernobyl still affects the Baltic Sea even today, 15 years after the nuclear catastrophe. HELCOM experts emphasize that although radioactivity is getting lower all the time, it is still substantially higher than over other marine areas of the world. And a new phenomenon: according to HELCOM documents, there is «a growing number of unknown chemical contaminants that raise new concern». Research conducted during the last decade, showed that Baltic fish have started to produce detoxifying enzymes in super-large quantities, two to three times higher than usual. Scientists have concluded that Baltic fish immune systems are fighting against some kind of new dangerous substances. HELCOM authorities answered my question on the progress of identifying these new toxins by saying that «this is one of the top priorities in our work, and a special project is under way at the moment.»

Alexey Kiselev, coordinator of the Baltic Sea anti-toxic campaign, shared his knowledge and opinions with the BC:

«During the campaign, we were able to visit lots of hot-spots, and collect vast documentation on how the HELCOM directives have been implemented, or otherwise. What can be said about the Baltic Sea is that this region is a very clear sample of the situation when one region has become a matter of serious concern, definite politics, and very substantial financial efforts on behalf of many countries. That all obviously bore positive results. We may observe that in general, the situation on the Baltic Sea is getting better in all the areas in where governments do not save money on the ecology - in Sweden and Finland, first of all, in Norway the results are coming not as fast, but are still visible and progressing. And its a pity that the situation on the Baltic Sea in Russia and the Baltic states is still the same - we can't observe any serious positive changes in these areas. Only in St Petersburg the situation seems to be improving. Not as soon as it was needed, but still, we can note that things have been done there.»

Magic powder put to use

A couple of years ago the BC reported about an invention by St.Petersburg academic Viktor Petrik allowing for a very efficient and speedy removal of spilt oil or oil products with the help of a hydrocarbon mix, YCBP-VIP (BC No. 13, 14). In early November we met with Algirdas Siatkus, commercial director of Lithuania's Urus & Ko company, the product's Baltic dealer.

We wondered why wasn't this magic powder used after the accidents in Butinge earlier in March and November this year. Siatkus said that «the Butinge terminal had YCBP-VIP in stock but chose to use a solution called Simple Green instead of a certified product made in Lithuania. Why? Possibly, a result of pressure from the American team.» Nevertheless, cooperation with Mazeikiu Nafta still continues, said Siatkus, and its stock of YCBP-VIP will be supplemented in the first quarter of next year. Urus & Ko also works in Klaipeda port where Lithuanian-made booms were used for surfacing shipwrecks containing some oil products that are extremely difficult to clean up. Booms made in Finland and Denmark were previously used, but they could not withstand the currents of up to five knots. Urus & Ko are now working together with Czechs to make the booms suitable for multiple use.

Siatkus said it was quite difficult to look for partners in the West because of distrust in Russian products and instability of deliveries from Russia. Nevertheless, by now many companies in Lithuania have switched to YCBP-VIP, including all gas stations operated by Statoil, Shell, Texaco, Ventas Nafta and to some extent LUKoil and also the Geo Nafta oil development company. Since spring 2001 Urus & Ko has also been working in the Riga port, cooperating with Eko osta in the treatment of ballast waters. For now Estonians are still using a Finnish sorbent to clean up oil contamination, said Siatkus, but talks between Urus & Ko and the Tallinn shipyard have also been scheduled for the nearest future.

Mr Kiselev described the situation in Kaliningrad as a «disastrous» one. «We were there recently, and spoke to the local people, authorities, the military, everyone. Poor people from Kaliningrad were saying to us that if one were to use the local water, their hair would even start growing inside their bodies! Quite a joke, reflecting very much the real situation in the area. We saw frogs that lived only 30 seconds, literally, after jumping into the waters of Kaliningrad. Thirty seconds!» Kiselev states that on the grounds of the vast documentation obtained by Green Peace, it can be said that «if the leadership of St Petersburg is clearly involved in the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea and really working on it with funding from Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the EU; the situation in Kaliningrad is utterly different. This is a very special region in Russia, it's a region where business and power has been melted so seriously that it has paralyzed all efforts to pursue any environmental program in the area. The biggest concern is the well-known Cepruss paper mill which is quite successful in selling its goods all across the EU, but still uses chlorine extensively, and demonstrates not even the slightest wish to do anything to improve its appalling environmental record.»

During past decade, the Russia's Kaliningrad enclave accumulated 90 tons of highly dangerous pesticides including those containing mercury; these substances are banned from being accumulated by many international conventions. Additionally, the territory of Kaliningrad has accumulated 6,000 tons of highly toxic waste, also including substances containing mercury, heavy metals and toxins. The problem originated by the fact that Kaliningrad had no re-processing facilities for such substances, and its geographical location has cut it off from those in Russia main. All this waste goes straight to the Rivers Pregola, Visla and Nyamunas, and from there to the Baltic Sea. The report states that toxins coming to the Baltic Sea this way are in the tens and hundreds of times higher than those acceptable by any regulations (chlorides were between 200 and 560 times higher than allowed, sulfates 160 to 210 times higher). Thus the proclaimed «Pearl of the Baltic,» Kaliningrad has become a highly dangerous dumpsite putting not only its own residents in danger, but also lots of its neighbors on the Baltic Sea.

What's more, the Russian Audit Chamber reported that Kaliningrad authorities did not provide HELCOM with required information on many important categories which was thought to be practice of the «golden past», making international efforts on improving the situation in the Baltic Sea in general much harder.

HELCOM is fully aware of the alarming situation in Kaliningrad. Its officials said to the BC that their «main hope lies in the process of EU enlargement, when the three Baltic countries become full members, it will be much easier to coordinate work and achieve a more efficient and stable result. And we do hope very much that with EU enlargement, coordination and contacts with Russia will become closer and better. We are looking forward to this, as it is a largely important factor from our point of view in the consistent improvement of the Baltic Sea environment.»



Making oil exports safer.

By Yelena Narushevich (Ventas balss)

The BC asked Bengt Soholm Jepsen, an expert with Denmark's Carl Bro environmental consultants, to give his assessment of the current environmental situation in the Baltic Sea region and the way oil terminals affect this situation

Bengt Soholm Jepsen, a hydro-biologist, is now in charge of an environmental project for the Kemeri National Park in the Latvian sea-side resort town of Jurmala on the Gulf of Riga. For two years the Carl Bro company worked on Latvia's national plan for response to sea contamination under his leadership and drafted a map of Latvia's areas most vulnerable to oil slicks. Carl Bro services are financed by the Danish government from a special fund for environmental measures in Eastern European countries. The Danes also perform similar assignments in Estonia and Lithuania.

Mr. Jepsen, what are the key environmental requirements for oil terminal operations?

The key principle is to prevent oil leaks into the environment. From this perspective the operations of various oil terminals can be compared. There is a big difference between cases when a terminal is situated in a closed port, like in Ventspils in Latvia's north-west or Klaipeda in Lithuania, or in the open sea as Lithuania's Butinge, for example. Even if the terminal is equipped with all the latest coastal technologies, the risk of an accident or oil spill upon a tanker moored or being loaded at a floating buoy in the open sea still remains high. In bad weather conditions it is extremely difficult to collect oil spilt into the sea. This year a major emergency happened in Danish territorial waters as a  tanker ran into a dry cargo vessel and oil products were spilled. This accident clearly demonstrated how hard it is to collect oil or oil products spilt in the open sea. Therefore the key requirement for oil terminal operations is the prevention of accidents and spills.

In addition, a terminal is required to allow for receiving ballast waters from tankers or else they would discard oil-contaminated ballast water into the open sea. I know that large ports - Ventspils, Tallinn, Riga, Klaipeda have facilities for treating waste water contaminated with oil products. It would also be preferable if a terminal had facilities for collecting and utilizing oil product vapors that accumulate in empty tanks and discharged into the atmosphere when the tanks are filled up or when oil products are being poured into railway tanks.

A very important indicator of a terminal's safety is the presence of complete equipment required to eliminate the consequences of an accident. From this aspect, terminals situated in closed ports are safer. Let's take Butinge, for example. Klaipeda or Liepaja would be the closest port having the emergency-rescue equipment, oil collecting vessels and other means for eliminating the consequences of accidents and oil spills. It is obvious that by the time this equipment is delivered to the scene of the spillage, the odds of gathering anything have reduced considerably. Every hour of delay upon any emergency means more damage.

What would be your assessment of the present environmental situation in the region and its future in, let's say, 10 years time?

I think we will see significant changes. Gearing up for European Union membership, the Baltic states seek to bring all areas in line with international standards. Vast efforts are being made by companies to introduce safe technologies preventing contamination of the environment.

Certificates of compliance with international environmental standards are becoming a new indicator of performance for companies. I know that Ventspils is working on it very seriously and several local companies, including Ventspils Nafta, have already obtained certificates of compliance with ISO international environmental standards. This trend is only natural since a company with Western partners seeks to offer them conditions for safe business, appropriate environmental and procedural arrangements. At the same time, Western partners may find the difference in service rates less significant than the environmental safety of their cooperative partners.

When the construction of an oil terminal in Russia's Primorsk port [north of St. Petersburg] is completed, the Baltic Sea environmental system will have to bear an even greater load. Is there any maximum admissible limit for cargo being shipped within any individual basin?

So far it is hard to say anything about the new terminal in Primorsk as it has not been put to commission yet. I can only say that the Gulf of Finland is already subject to serious ecological load due to wastewaters discharged by the large city of St. Petersburg. In addition, closed ecological systems, like the Gulfs of Riga or Finland, are in themselves more vulnerable to environmental damage.

I think it is important for us all to realize that as long as there will be demand for oil in the world, it will be developed, sold and transported, including conveyance by sea. This is a very strong factor that we are not in a position to counter. But we can strive to make the operations of ports, terminals and other facilities as environment-friendly as possible.

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