Out of sight, out of mind?
Archived Articles 01 Feb 2008 Roland CampbellEWR
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Nordstream is set to stir things up in the Baltic Sea

While we’ve sat and admired the uniqueness of each fallen snow flake, the construction of the Nordstream pipeline has become more than an idea fresh from the womb. It is already walking.

The trans-Baltic undersea pipeline is set to span a distance of 1200 km with the goal of supplying Western Europe with ample amounts of Russian Energy, more specifically natural gas.

The course of the pipeline will take it from western Russia, from the once Finnish city of Viipuri (Vyborg), located northeast of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, along the bottom of the Baltic Sea directly through or near the economic zones of Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark and Poland, ending at Greifsvald, in eastern Germany.

Of course, controversy surrounds the pipeline, raising a plethora of issues with national security, economic extortion and environmental suicide at the forefront. In short, the Swedish are concerned about Russian espionage and lack of economic benefit, while the rest of the countries affected (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark and Finland) are distraught by their absence from the initial planning process of the pipeline, which was primarily carried out between Russia and Germany. Looming ominously overall are the environmental implications.

Feelings aside, a great deal more attention should be paid to the potential environmental and ecological impact surrounding the project. Nordstream – a consortium of 3 energy companies, Gazprom, E. ON and BASF – is conducting a thorough environmental impact assessment due in 2008, after numerous delays in scheduling. But they are obviously biased when it come to their opinions of what effect construction will have on what environmentalists have identified as the world’s most polluted sea.

Although there are disagreements and even some bickering over political and economic issues, the one front all nations are united on is the environmental one. The degree of fervor in the voices of the respected ministers responsible for the issue does vary, but the message is the same: Just what do you think you (Nordstream) are doing building a pipeline in a potentially volatile sea environment?

To be clear, “volatile” is an understatement. The Baltic Sea is a well known dumping ground of industrial, chemical and wartime refuse. The statistics are humbling, baffling and even awe-inspiring.

Avoiding melodrama, these practices were common and accepted as environmentally sound until a half-century ago. The health and stability of the Baltic Sea was not focused upon until 1974, at the first Helsinki Convention, which spawned HELCOM (the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission in Helsinki). Nevertheless, one must question the logic behind the policies in their shortsightedness quite critically.

Some of the most significant and hazardous instances of dumping occurred after WWII, as governments began to dispose of their weapons stockpiles. Germany alone is identified as to having dumped 35, 000 tonnes of their chemical arsenal, which included mustard gas and nerve gas among many others. As well, various types of explosives were dumped in the Baltic Sea during the war by both sides. This, sadly, is not the full extent of the dumping. Recently, 3,500 barrels containing mercury were discovered off the eastern coast of Sweden. Total possible figures have been estimated as being upwards of 23,000 barrels, although this cannot be confirmed, due to the absence of accurate records.

Nordstream argues that the environmental impact will be minimal, claiming that construction will only have impact on the seabed and ecosystems within a 100-meter range of the proposed pipeline. One hundred meters is not a minute distance by any means, when the entire length of the pipeline is considered.

Nordstream also believes that the explosives and chemicals embedded in the sediment and the latent disturbance of them will not be a threat to pipeline and the ecology surrounding it (beyond 100 m, of course). The company will systematically scan the seabed in search of the aforementioned liabilities. Nordstream spokesman, Jens Müller, went on to say “we are familiar with the storage [sic] sites” and “the pipeline will not run in their vicinity.”

All of this is well and good, but with numerous environmental authorities such as HELCOM and WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) expressing caution and concern about the issue, one must be wary when choosing a side of the fence.

While the Germans were notorious for their avid documentation and record keeping, circumstances are not the same regarding as to when and where most of the superfluous amounts of toxic materials were dumped in the Baltic Sea. (The Soviet Union also dumped considerable amounts of chemicals the Baltic Sea during WW II. Mines and explosives from wartime are still surfacing.)

“What’s hiding down there is anybody’s guess,” said Juhu-Markku Leppänen, a HELCOM Baltic sea habitat expert. The caliber and meticulousness of the environmental impact assessment will no doubt be of utmost quality (there is far too much money at stake for anything less), but the potential for ecological disaster is plainly put, too damn high. Even with such an assessment there isn’t a sufficient amount of absolute information available guaranteeing the identity, the vicinity and the quantity of the materials dumped to warrant construction on this scale.

The marine reserve of Gotland, the bird populations on the Baltic coast, the numerous varieties of flora and fauna in the ecosystems affected by the course of the pipeline are all too valuable to the health of the Baltic Sea. Inevitably, no matter which way you spin it, to us.
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