We, 5.10.2022

Ministry of the Environment wants to rid itself of hazardous obligation

Ministry of the Environment wants to rid itself of hazardous obligation
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Tallinn's G-anchorage area is the most popular bunkering place for tankers.
Tallinn's G-anchorage area is the most popular bunkering place for tankers. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • The Ministry of the Environment considers the safety of anchorages an economic issue.
  • Ministry: if you hand over the obligations, hand over the officials and money.
  • Estonia’s pollution control capability is substandard.

The Ministry of the Environment wants to shift the obligation to deal with marine polluters in anchoring areas fully to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (MKM), whose officials believe that the proposal makes no sense.

“The Ministry of the Environment has a specialized marine environment department, whose only task is to deal with it!” said Kaupo Läänerand, Undersecretary of Maritime Affairs of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, showing strong opposition to the proposal.

Yet the Ministry of the Environment wants to get rid of the issue which is likely to bring trouble. Last summer, at the proposal of the Ministry of the Environment, the government amended the regulation “Procedure for Handling Hazardous and Harmful Substances at Sea, on the Narva River and Lake Peipsi” to end the loading of hazardous fuels from ship to ship (STS operations) for commercial purposes.

What remained were commercial loading and bunkering (refueling from ship to ship) of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Bunkering can now only take place in six anchorage areas instead of the previous 19; in fact operators can only use one or two for this purpose.

As Russian oil bunkering is currently particularly intensive, the most popular anchorage area is experiencing bottlenecks and an increased risk of accidents. Bunkering firms are demanding additional anchorages and use the services of former Minister of the Environment Marko Pomerants (see Postimees May 10).

The Ministry of the Environment wants to rid itself of the unpleasant issue - Estonia's anti-pollution capacity is already below standards and it also has to keep an eye on the practice of anchoring oil tankers in Estonian waters (see the additional article). The ministry has decided that operations in the anchorage areas is economic activity and therefore the officials do not want to begin debating whether anchorages abolished for environmental considerations should be replaced or restored.

“Then we would start regulating the sphere of economy, which is not really within our competence. Therefore, we made this request that it would be more logical if the anchorages were the responsibility of the MKM, “said Antti Tooming, Undersecretary for environment use of the Ministry of the Environment.

Tooming said that it would not mean that they would withdraw completely. “In case of economic activities, the environmental aspect must be taken into account and considered. In that respect we can still be involved, give advice and advance ideas. But on the whole, it would be correct for the MKM to handle it,” Tooming concluded.

“MKM could start dealing with felling volumes as well, because this is an economic activity,” Kaupo Läänerand said. “After all, this is why we have different ministries, different competencies, especially in the boards and agencies.”

If the Marine Environment Department of the Ministry of the Environment relinquishes this responsibility, it should also hand over the money in Läänerand’s opinion: “In that case the resource and the salary fund, together with all the people who are competent in this field, could also be transferred to the MKM.”

The more tankers, the greater the hazard

The bunkering firms and the MKM are of the opinion that the restriction of activities in anchorages has created marine environmental hazard, as the risk of a collision between the ships and bunkering accidents is now high.

According to the MKM, an average 215 ships per month have visited Estonian anchorages since the beginning of the year. In April, bunkering was carried out 84 times in anchoring areas and waste was disposed of in 46 cases.

The MKM undersecretary compared the situation with heavy street traffic, where the risk of collisions is also higher. “If an anchor starts to slip or there is a wrong maneuver due to weather conditions – and there can always be technical mishaps as well – the ships are very close to each other and there is higher likelihood of polluting the marine environment,” Läänerand said. He added that it could be argued with hindsight that the Ministry of the Environment had insufficiently analyzed the environmental hazards before adopting the regulation.

Läänerand said that if more anchorage areas had been retained last year when the regulation was amended, there would be no need to discuss this issue now. “The regulation should be amended again, the restriction on bunkering should be lifted from one to three areas, and it would immediately be better from the marine environment protection viewpoint.”

The bunkering firms proposed in January to the marine environment department of the Ministry of the Environment to add three anchorages in the Tallinn and Muuga bays, but the matter has not progressed anywhere.

When the representatives of the business and the Ministry of the Environment met a few weeks ago, they did not get anywhere either. However, the Ministry of the Environment proposed to make the entire issue of anchorages the responsibility of the MKM. Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center Party) was allegedly amazed by the idea.

Andres Valgerist, chairman of the board of the Logistics and Transit Association, who also attended the meeting, said that the situation was incomprehensible. “They made this change referring to environmental impact, and now they say that if entrepreneurs have problems, let the MKM deal with it,” said Valgerist, who added that it would look strange if the MKM should initiate solving a problem of environmental safety.

Estonia’s pollution control capacity is substandard

Kuldar Rikma, Chief Inspector of the environment use supervision development department of the Environmental Board at the Ministry of the Environment, explained that if the sea should be polluted due to tanker accident, the Police and Border Guard Boards (PPA) will organize the disposal of the pollution. “In that case, the task of the Environmental Board is to hold the polluter liable and assess the damage caused to the environment.”

However, the officials may be incapable to handle the first task. The Environmental Board receives information on pollution hazard in the Estonian maritime area, among other things, through satellite images of the remote monitoring system. At present, the main cause for concern is a spontaneously formed tanker parking area at the border of the Estonian economic zone, where no pollution has been identified so far.

The Ministry of the Environment published a recent study in April, warning that Estonia’s anti-pollution vessels are not able to identify and eliminate possible marine pollution rapidly enough. “Therefore pollution may spread to a wider sea area and also reach to the coast, and the guilty party may remain undetected,” the study said.

Minister of the Environment Erki Savisaar (Center Party) stated that although the country's anti-pollution capability has improved in recent years, it still does not meet the minimum requirements agreed between the Baltic Sea states.

According to the HELCOM Convention, the Estonian state must be able to clean up 4.5 km² of pollution per day, but according to the study, it could handle approximately 3 km². Thus, one can speculate as to why the Ministry of the Environment wants to get rid of responsibility in anchorages.

According to the survey, an estimated 2,000 ships stay in the Baltic Sea at a time, including 200 oil tankers. As oil transport has now picked up, their nu,mber is even higher.

There have been 106 cases of oil pollution in the Estonian maritime area during the last ten years, mostly in the Gulf of Finland and on the roadstead in Tallinn. In most cases, oil products and bilge water were spilled into the sea.

It is not always possible to determine the possible causes of the investigated pollution incidents, because the vessels that caused the pollution may have already left Estonian waters by the time the pollution was discovered. However, the cost of pollution detection is paid by Estonian taxpayers, because no so-called oil fund has been established in Estonia so far – potential polluters would proactively cover the costs related to pollution detection in addition to pollution damage.

Spontaneous parking lot for tankers sprawls in Estonia’s waters

Officials are anxiously monitoring the parking lot of oil tankers and other cargo ships, which have spontaneously formed in Estonia’s economic zone, where large vessels are increasingly gathering in clusters – they cannot be driven out or controlled, but in case of an accident, Estonia would have to handle pollution control.

“In “better times”, there are some 20 large ships here – tankers and bulk carriers,” said fisherman Kalle (surname withheld at his request - ed.) from Lahemaa National Park in West Viru County. He has been monitoring the movement of ships at sea and in the marinetraffic.com database for a long time. “We can see the lights on the horizon, we can see eight or nine ships, but there are still others behind them,” added Aarne Vaik, the manager of the Käsmu Maritime Museum, who is also observing the ships.

Kalle said that oil tankers have been stopping in Estonian waters before, but for about a month the Gulf of Finland has been “red” – the marinetraffic.com website designates tankers in red on its map.

For example, early Monday mornings they could observe the following parked oil tankers from Käsmu: Aristidis (Marshall Islands), Coral Energice (the Netherlands), RN Murmansk (Cyprus), Dali (Cayman Islands), Sibur Voronezh, Suvorovsky Prospekt, Viktor Bakayev and LPG tanker NS Concept (Liberia).

“They are waiting to enter the Ust-Luga and Primorsk ports, because of the Russian regulation that once they cross the Russian border, they have to enter the port immediately. If there are no vacant berths in the port, there is no slot for them, they are held in a “parking lot””, the fisherman explained.

The parking lot was created in 2019, when Russia started fining ships waiting for their slots in Russian waters. The port news portal indicated that tankers had been ignoring the Russian laws in force since 1993. Now they were fined up to 500,000 rubles (about 9,000 euros at that time) for repeated violations.

Russia drove away the tankers

According to Kalle, Russia drove away tankers that had previously gathered at Suursaar (Gogland) Island. “But then the Russians built their military base on the island,” Kalle explained. “And then drove all the ships away from there so that they could not observe what was going on there.”

Kalle remarked that the current expansion of the tanker parking lot may also be related to the European Union ban on the entry of Russian-flagged tankers into its ports from April.

He noted that the Russian-flagged tankers VF Tanker 15 and Odin, which previously transported oil products to Sillamäe, are therefore no longer seen. Postimees wrote on Monday that Russia has increased its oil products export in tankers by more than a fifth in recent weeks than in February before the war. Russian oil is transported by vessels flying the flags of African countries or island nations, but the vessels are either owned or chartered by Russians. In addition, ships picking up oil cargoes in Russia often fail to announce their destination, which works like a smokescreen and might prevent the ship from being blocked from entering Europe.

Technically, ships can also switch off from the AIS tracking device - then marinetraffic.com does not show the ship's movement.

Police and Border Guard Board: we can only observe

However, the port news portal states that the anchorages outside Russian waters are not intended for mass parking of tankers, which could jeopardize maritime safety in the Gulf of Finland. The “parking lot” in Estonian waters is not even an official anchorage area.

"The Maritime Surveillance Center of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) monitors ships which have been anchored or are drifting in the area waiting to enter the port,” confirmed Rene Hartõkainen, the leading border officer of the PPA's maritime security group. “The ships are in the Estonian economic zone, where they do not need to apply for the coastal state’s permission to anchor, to coordinate anything or even notify the state.”

According to Hartõkainen, the PPA monitors that ships in the area would not drift into the territorial waters. “There have been some incidents in the past,” he said. “In such cases we will contact the ship's crew immediately and direct them back to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).”

In the course of routine monitoring, the PPA also monitors the occurrence of possible marine pollution. The use of the EEZ is governed by the EEZ Act and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"The PPA has the right to inspect, obtain information from or detain vessels operating in our exclusive economic zone if the vessel's crew has committed an infringement, such as causing pollution, engaging in illegal fishing or other natural resources gathering, or conducting illegal research. If no violations have been committed, the PBGB has no right to limit the time the ship stays at anchor or to ask about the reason for staying at anchor,” Hartõkainen noted.