Sa, 4.02.2023

The pretext of war creates a dangerous precedent

Ülle Harju
, ajakirjanik
The pretext of war creates a dangerous precedent
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Kaarel Võhandu, a bird scientist and head of the Estonian Ornithological Society, confirms that he is not against the gas terminal in principle, but still considers it necessary to assess its environmental impact.
Kaarel Võhandu, a bird scientist and head of the Estonian Ornithological Society, confirms that he is not against the gas terminal in principle, but still considers it necessary to assess its environmental impact. Photo: Sander Ilvest
  • If the state grants advantage to one entrepreneur, others will want it as well
  • Environmental impact could be assesses within a month
  • The ornithologists do not fight the LNG terminal

Canceling the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal planned in Paldiski, using the war in Ukraine as a pretext, could create a dangerous precedent according to ornithologists: other entrepreneurs would also save money by flouting environmental standards and the civil servants would have to make hard choices between preferences.

«We support ending the import of gas from Russia and do not fight against the terminal,» stressed Kaarel Võhandu, head of the Birdlife Estonia. «We just point out that the Nature Protection Act and other laws are still in force in Estonia.»

Estonia is currently planning a floating terminal. It would float for a year in the Natura 2000 bird and environment protection area; therefore it is necessary to assess its impact on the nature under protection. The government, however, wants to waive the EIA, claiming that it could be replaced by the eight years old assessment for the environmental permit for special use of water concerning a land-based terminal and pier, although the terminal would be based on a vessel rather than on the ground.

Kakumäe beach
Kakumäe beach Photo: Sander Ilvest

«If a 300-meter floating terminal will stay at the pier for a year it will obviously have a different impact than a couple of tankers per months,» Võhandu said. «According to our judgment, the project has undergone sufficient changes warranting a new EIA, but the Ministry of Economy and Communications does not think so.»

«If we are going to ignore the laws because of a crisis, it should at least be somehow regulated,» Kaarel Võhandu explained. «Who has determined which rules and laws can be ignored in wartime? Nature protection is now being victimized. But large logging areas and wide roads through the forests being created by the State Forest Management Center (RMK) will also favor the enemy – maybe we should immediately stop creating advantages to invaders?»

The EIA could be carried out within a month

Võhandu estimates that the EIA could be carried out within a month, meaning that the pier and other infrastructure necessary for the terminal would be completed by autumn just like the government wants. «The Environmental Board has previously carried out EIA rapidly and post factum, for example the case of the Linnamäe dam,» he said.

«If the EIA would determine that the floating terminal has a negative impact on the bird area, it would still be possible to build it due to overwhelming public interest, which doubtlessly exists,» Võhandu said. «It would simply require some compensation or mitigating measures to reduce the impact on birds.»

If the terminal will be active all the time, it would drive away the threatened and protected bird species, especially long-tailed ducks and black guillemots, who are sensitive to disturbing. «The construction of a kilometer-long pier and dredging will clearly destroy their feeding area,» Võhandu said. «The long-tailed duck is a bottom-feeder – it eats seashells and other mollusks on the seabed.»

He recommended that a mitigating measure could be the expansion of the Natura 2000 bid area towards east and west. In a couple of months Birdlife Estonia will complete a detailed analysis of important bird areas in the coastal regions which have not yet been taken under protection. «It would be nice if they would be declared protection zones,» Võhandu said. «According to the analysis, 30 percent of marine area should be taken under protection, which is also the goal of the EU.» As of now some 20 percent of Estonia’s maritime area is under protection.

The ministries can see no problem

The government has set the deadline of November 1 by which time the Paldiski terminal should be prepared to receive gas tankers. «As far as we know, the existing permits should be sufficient but we shall investigate whether they should be revised,» said Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center). «The goal is to launch the project as soon as possible so as to ensure Estonia’s supply of gas by next winter.»

Taimo Aasma, head of the Ministry for the Environment nature protection department, believed that the environmental permit for special use of water issued in 2015 for the construction of an LNG terminal in Pakrineeme port is still valid. «This would permit the construction of a terminal according to the alternative drafted during the EIA. The environmental permit has therefore been granted for the activities described in the EIA. If they want to amend the project or use a different technology, the new project would need an assessment whether a new permit would be necessary, the existing permit would be modified or a new EIA should be carried out. It would be difficult to comment the Birdlife Estonia position because what happens next depends on whether something needs to be changed compared with the initial plan.»

When asked how he could claim it, considering that the permit for special use of water had been issued with the premise that the terminal would be built on the ground and would receive a couple of tankers per month, Aasma answered: «There is no project and we would not speculate. The present position is that the EIA is valid.»

The environmentalists’ suspicions proved true

The Pakri bird area, which is under international protection, is frequented by thousands of long-tailed ducks. The long-tailed duck, about half the size of the mallard, is a globally threatened species. The black guillemot is also threatened and many other species of waterfowl nest or rest in the area.

The environmentalists protested against the construction of the LNG terminal in the area from the beginning and asked why the gas could not be imported to Estonia through some existing port. They never received a clear answer, but the Paldiski city council approved in 2012 the zoning plan for the construction of the LNG terminal in the protection area (with only the terminal building staying out of its limits).

The Estonian Fund for Nature contested the resolution in court, arguing that the impact on the environment and the protected nature values in the zoning area had not been sufficiently determined.

The court supported the municipality. It appeared afterwards that the environmentalists had been right about the insufficient EIA. The report of the EIA of the LNG terminal permit for special use of water for the pier construction (OÜ Hendrikson & Ko, 2015) reads: «A significant change compared with the Paldiski LNG terminal planning and the solution discussed in its EIA report, as well as submitted in the initial application for the water use permit is the dredging of the port area.»

The construction project foresees the building of a 742 meter connecting bridge and a 335 meter pier at its end. The report states that the immediate necessity for dredging became apparent only as a result of geological surveys carried out in 2013–2014.

The piles of the pier and other supporting structures must reach the layer of clay under the sand, but «starting from the depth of water approximately ten meters (where the clay lies at the depth of approximately 15… – 20 meters) it is no longer technically practical». That would mean excavating more than half a million cubic meters of sand from underwater in the Natura 2000 bird area.

The same assessment states that the location of the terminal in Paldiski is not contested because the thematic planning has been drafted there, unlike in Muuga and Sillamäe. There was no explanation why it had not been done.

Impact assessment reckons with spare shipping

The Natura assessment amounts to a significant part of the Hendrikson & Ko report. It states that the planned activities pose the greatest threat to the black guillemot, a bird of 2nd category of protection: «The Pakri Peninsula is a critical habitat from Estonia’s viewpoint because this is the only permanent nesting area.»

The other threatened species is the long-tailed duck – a migratory and wintering bird, whose habitats are located in the tundra area and the main wintering areas in the Baltic coast. The number of long-tailed ducks wintering in the Baltic Sea areas has declined 65 percent over 16 years.

In mid-May, the herons will start migrating to their breeding grounds.
In mid-May, the herons will start migrating to their breeding grounds. Photo: Pilipenko/Adobestock

The long-tailed duck is the most numerous migratory waterfowl in the Pakri bird area (46,000 birds counted in the autumn).

The report reads: «The main impact on marine life is in general caused by dredging of the sea and the accompanying dumping of dredged soil in the sea. The most extensive direct change of the seabed and related disturbance of bottom fauna and flora occurs in the dredging area covering 12.3 hectares.»

The description ends with the assessment: «Since the specific area of pier construction and dredging did not have high figures of variety of seabed species or biomass, the impact of the intended activity cannot be overestimated.»

Another reason why the assessors do not consider the impact significant is that the removed sand would be dumped into the sea outside the Natura 2000 area. LNG is harmless to water environment as the gas leaking into the sea would vaporize without causing pollution comparable to that of oil.

The same report explains why the ornithologists call for a new assessment. The impact assessors proceed repeatedly and in various aspects from the assumption that the LNG terminal would not be placed in the sea in a Natura 2000 area and that the traffic of tankers would be infrequent: «The most significant disturbing factor in the Pakri study area is shipping.»

Shipping as a factor affecting bird habitation has also been mentioned in the Pakri nature reserve and protection area project, which describes shipping-related disturbances as a negative activity of medium intensity. The increasing pollution and other hazards related to shipping are assessed as potentially more significant: «It can be judged that the activities during the use of the LNG terminal (mainly tanker traffic) will probably disturb the long-tailed ducks in the immediate vicinity of mooring pier, but would not significantly affect the long-tailed ducks stopping or wintering in the coastal waters of the Pakri Peninsula or harm the quality of their habitat. The intensity of use of the port is relatively low and the interference is not significant.»