Pulp mill row leaves behind myths

Vale on väita, et Emajõe puhul midagi uurida pole, leiab Eesti Maaülikooli limnoloogiakeskuse juht ning hüdrobioloogia ja kalanduse professor Kalle Olli.

PHOTO: Sille Annuk

The cellulose plant project was stopped – the people are satisfied and emotions calmed down. Politicians do not take blame for the row, but scientists, who have studied River Emajõgi, now say that the possible impact of the plant should have been studied, since the society needs to know how great a pressure we can exert on our bodies of water.

This impact will continue anyway since the protestors of the human chain also want to live comfortably and will consume ever more.

The reasons for the fragile state of the Emajõgi should therefore be sought within oneself. Some have simple solutions; others will require the discussion of the whole society.

The question is, will the people want to hold that discussion without emotions or will they prefer to fight passionately over myths.

The pulp mill debate included some of the myths.

Scientists wanted to study

Kristjan Zobel, an ecologist, wrote in April that the Lake Võrtsjärv-Rover Emajõgi-Lake Peipus basin is one of the best-studied fresh-water ecosystems in the world.

“A large and world-class team of scientists, mainly of the Estonian University of Life Sciences center of limnology located at the edge of this ecosystem, and the University of Tartu Estonian Marine Institute, is even today researching and monitoring the state of this basin,” Zobel remarked. As an ecologist, he claimed to be incapable to guess “which important aspect about this basin ecosystem we still do not know”.

“What to study? There is no point in studying social and economic impact if in the ecological sense building the factory without totally ruining Lake Peipus and the Emajõgi is as impossible as building a perpetuum mobile,” wrote  a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Tartu.

Margit Sutrop, who ran for the post of the university rector, also said that everything has been researched. It seems that even scientists oppose research.

The marine biologist Kalle Olli, head of the Estonian University of Life Sciences center of limnology, says that this is wishful thinking. “Those claiming that there is no need for research have never seen the ecosystems of bodies of water. If arguments are emotional, it will lead to demagoguery rather than democracy,” he says.

“I think that every scientists – including Kristjan Zobel – knows that there are no such fields where there is nothing left to study,” adds hydrobiologist Peeter Pall, who has studied the basin of River Emajõgi.

Olli and Pall agree that there is a lot left to study. “The principle that there is no need for studies runs contrary to my philosophy. If decisions are made based on emotions, it looks like the Veche of Novgorod and sounds scary,” Olli says.

But Olli admits that he could not say it during the heated debate. “I had to maintain a low profile and stay neutral, since if the study had been carried out, probably someone from my chair would have taken part in it. If I had expressed my opinion in advance they would have claimed that the entire study is subjective,” Professor of the Chair of hydrobiology and fishery at the University of Life Sciences explains. “But if you now ask what I think about the plant, then I do not know. I would have preferred to see the study first.”

There is a lot to study. “We have state monitoring of rivers, but the country is poor and it is done exactly as much or as little as the funding allows. For example, the monitoring of fish stocks is almost nonexistent, but this study would have allowed it,” the marine biologist says.

They would have also learned how large the pulp mill’s share of the river’s phosphorus pollution would have been in comparison with other pollution sources and what it would mean for River Emajõgi and Lake Peipus.

“Maybe this amount of phosphorus could have taken us back in time by six years. But was the state of the Emajõgi so bad six years ago that everyone screamed for help? It wasn’t,” says Olli. While all waste was dumped in the Emajõgi back in the Soviet period, considerable efforts are presently made to improve the situation.

Any setback would have obviously been harmful. “You work hard knitting a jumper and them someone comes and unravels one third of it – it would distress you, no doubt. There could have been ways for curbing the risks but all that was never discussed,” the marine biologist says.

“We could have said how large share this amount of phosphorus would have formed of the overall amount of phosphorus in Lake Peipus. Maybe a couple percent. Then the society could have decided whether these few percents are critical. But now we do not know because there was no study,” he says.

Olli says that he can understand the fear of the public that once there is a study the plant will follow. “But new must overcome these fears. Imagine a society where important decisions are based on emotions – just in case let us not do any research. This is a depressing society and unfortunately it could be quite real.”

According to the head of the limnology center, the terms of reference allowed the scientists speak honestly about the matter.

“The terms of reference on the second base stated that the state of the Emajõgi may not deteriorate. And the second to last page stated that “there may be exceptions”. That is, we would have been free to say honestly what was going to happen, we should not have been silent and feel pressure, since eventually nothing depends on us – everything is possible if politicians decide so,” he remarks.

Politicians would have had to take the pressure, but unfortunately they do not enjoy high public confidence.