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Finland hopes to clean up Russian shipping in Baltic

Pollution from shipping has been a problem since the days of sail
by Gael Branchereau
Helsinki (AFP) May 21, 2006
Finland will use its upcoming presidency of the European Union to draw Russia's attention to pollution in the Baltic Sea, which is seeing unprecedented traffic as a result of rising oil exports and growing regional economic activity.

The issue is expected to dominate a meeting of European environment ministers scheduled for July 15-16 in Turku, southwestern Finland.

It will also be tackled within the framework of the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership meeting in October, attended by Finnish and German environment ministers, the European environment commissioner and the Russian natural resources minister.

The Baltic, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, is under serious environmental threat. At any one time 2,000 cargo ships, including 200 tankers, ply its waters.

The sea is particularly at risk from chemical spills because it is virtually closed and thus poorly "ventilated". In Scandinavia the sea is known as the "Eastern lake".

Around 50 collisions and beachings are reported annually in the sea's 370,000 square kilometers (230 square miles). Its many islands and narrow straits make navigation hazardous.

"Considering the number of tankers that use these waters, it is astonishing that we have not seen a major incident," says Saara Haanninen, researcher at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and co-author of a study on the transport of dangerous materials in the Baltic Sea, published by the Finnish environment ministry.

Only three chemical accidents were reported between 1989 and 2003. The most recent oil spill was in 2003 when a Chinese tanker ran aground, discharging 1,200 tonnes of crude into the waters off Bornholm island, between Sweden and Denmark.

Continued strong economic growth in Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as the construction of oil terminals in Russia suggest that maritime traffic in the Baltic Sea is set to double by 2017.

In 2004 Baltic ports reported handling 9.1 million tonnes of chemical cargo, 50 percent more than in 1987. This amount could reach 15 million tonnes by 2015, according to the report.

The shipment of oil is also set to increase, largely due to Russian exports, from 40 million tonnes in 2000 to over 135 million tonnes in 2005. The report estimates oil transport through the Baltic could breach 200 million tonnes before 2010.

In 2004 countries bordering the sea successfully lobbied for it to be classed "a maritime area of special sensitivity" by the International Maritime Organisation.

This designation allows the harmonisation of maritime security measures and training of ships's crews, and restricts ships' passage from especially sensitive areas.

However, two years later, no concrete measures have been approved, let alone implemented, says Greenpeace spokeswoman Sari Tolvanen.

Furthermore, the banning of single-hulled tankers does not remove the "worst of the worst", and does not affect the transit of crude oil, according to Tolvanen.

Some progress has been made however, since 2004, all vessels sailing in the Gulf of Finland are required to report to Estonian, Finnish and Russian authorities. This arrangement is thought to have already reduced the number of collisions in the Baltic by 80 percent.

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