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Dredging for Port of Bronka a Threat to Gulf of Finland

Posted on October 8, 2015

A massive dredging project is under-way on the bottom of the Gulf of Finland in Russia.

The amount of dredging required for the Port of Bronka, a deepwater port under construction south of Kronstadt, is so high that the cloudiness of the water is discernible from space, with recent satellite pictures showing that the cloudy water has dispersed dozens of kilometres west on the Gulf of Finland.

Dredging increases the cloudiness of water and can result in the release of nutrients from the seabed into the sea currents. Toxins absorbed by the seabed can similarly be released into the water.

The impact of the construction project has only been subject to estimates as an international environmental impact assessment has yet to be carried out due to Russia not ratifying the Espoo Convention on the assessment of environmental impacts in a trans-boundary context.

Environmental authorities in Finland admitted to being surprised by the amount of seabed to be dredged as part of the project – a maximum of 28 million cubic metres.

It is impossible to provide an accurate estimated of the impact of the project on the Gulf of Finland due to a lack of requisite information on the composition of the seabed and toxin concentrations, tells Seppo Knuuttila, a senior research scientist at the Finnish Environment Institute (Syke).

“It’s an area where such large-scale activities can potentially have an impact on the underwater environment also outside the action area, as the cloudiness suggests. Any possible toxins can spread on the Gulf of Finland with suspended solids,” he says.

“Waste water, harbours and shipyards have placed a burden on the action area for quite a while. Toxin concentrations are typically high in such areas.”

Knuuttila also reminds that long-term cloudiness can have a detrimental effect on the local fish populations and breeding grounds.

The amount of seabed to be dredged is 165 times as high as the 0.17 million cubic metres excavated to make way for Nord Stream, a gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, in 2010.

The energy project stirred up an uproar in Finland, with various environmental authorities, policy makers, environmental organisations and researchers voicing their concerns over its impact on the Gulf of Finland. Some even described it as an eco-catastrophe.

Finnish authorities have been utterly unaware of the dredging for the Port of Bronka.

Martti Poutanen, a ministerial adviser responsible for issues related to Russia at the Ministry of the Environment, was on Wednesday unaware that dredging on the site had already continued for 18 months. Finland has consequently yet to ask a report from Russia on the impact of the project on the Gulf of Finland.

“We haven’t been actively contacted about the issue. The port is in the regional waters of Russia, and Russia has decided that it’s not an issue that concerns the Espoo Convention,” explains Poutanen.

“It would’ve been important to assess the environmental impact of such a large project,” he admits.

Researchers from both Finland and Estonia collaborated widely with Russian environmental organisations in the context of the Gulf of Finland Year 2014. The dredging project was not discussed, however.

“The port discussion wasn’t at least a visible feature [of the theme year],” says Kai Myrberg, the project manager for the Gulf of Finland Year 2014 at Syke. “The co-operation was mainly related to the existing data we’ve received from Russia.”

The designer of the project, Ljudmila Vesikko from Syke, reveals that two Russian research institutes commented on the environmental impact of the construction project in the course of the Gulf of Finland Year.

“Both parties were firmly of the opinion that no major impact on the environment has been detected,” she says.

The dredging began in mid-2014 and in addition to the dock itself it will make way for a 6-kilometre long and 14.4-metre deep waterway for vessels. A total of 28 million cubic metres of material – clay, sand and sludge – will be dredged from the seabed, according to the operator of the Port of Bronka, Fenix LLC.

Alexey Shukletsov, the managing director of Fenix LLC, says that experts have evaluated the effects of the project on the geology and fish populations in the Gulf of Finland as well as the other environment as part of several environmental impact assessments. Russian environmental authorities have showed a green light for the project.

“The environmental impact is under constant monitoring. The results indicate that the environmental impact is very narrow and limited to the areas around Bronka,” Shukletsov writes in an e-mail.

The construction project is expected to deteriorate water quality and affect fish populations locally. The detrimental effects will according to Shukletsov be mitigated with fish transplantations.

Knuuttila estimates that the satellite pictures alone confirm that the project falls under the purview of the Espoo Convention and that an environmental impact assessment should consequently have been carried out before launching the project. The project should also be monitored accordingly, according to him.

The effects of the project will mainly be visible in nearby areas, although sea currents can carry some of the materials and toxins long distances.

“The cloudiness is currently visible on an area over 80 kilometres long and up to 30 kilometres wide. That’s comparable to a dredging project in Helsinki clouding the Gulf of Finland all the way to Tallinn,” highlights Knuuttila.

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