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Baltics: Turning the Tide On Baltic Sea Pollution

Prague, 11 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Baltic Sea, often dismissed as a marine sewer facing imminent ecological death during Europe's communist era, is for the first time in years reported on the mend.

The Helsinki Commission for the Protection of the Baltic Marine Environment (HELCOM) has just completed its latest five-year report (1989-1993) on the health of Northern Europe's most-polluted sea and the verdict looks good.

Since the commission's inception in 1974, tough pollution-curbing measures have been established, helping to make progress in restoring the sea's ecological balance. That's good news. The Baltic is an important source of economic activity and recreation for more than 80 million people living along its coast and within its drainage area.

Lutz Brugmann, chairman and author overseeing HELCOM's latest report, told RFE/RL yesterday that the Baltic is especially susceptible to pollution problems because it is a relatively closed sea, and water exchanges only slowly with the North Sea. Brugmann, a marine chemist, says the report's findings, while encouraging, should be taken with a fair amount of caution, owing to the inherent difficulty of measuring a body of water sporting a mean depth of 52 meters, a drainage area four times the size of the Sea area itself, and a water volume of 20,000 cubic kilometers.

Still, Brugmann says there is reason for hope.

According to HELCOM's report, the Baltic's most pressing environmental problems are high levels of phosphates and nitrates, which lead to a build-up of de-oxygenating algal growth. This creates a condition commonly referred to as "Dead Sea." But the levels of phosphates and nitrates have reportedly been halved in the past five years through tight controls on fertilizer use and the introduction of new waste treatment plants.

But Brugmann also told RFE/RL that there is still the concern of new technologies threatening the Baltic environment. He said there are already plans to build ten new oil terminals on the Eastern and Southern Coasts of the Baltic over the next ten years. While helping countries like the Baltic states and Poland end their dependence on Russian oil, the project could also, in Brugmann's view, pose a new threat for ecological disaster or decline in the Baltic Sea region.

On average, about three ecological accidents happen each year in the Baltic Sea, each spilling about 225 tons of oil. This is not surprising for an area where annually 7,000 or more sailings involving the transport of oil take place. But during the next decade, oil transported via the Baltic Sea is expected to increase from its current level of 78 to 177 millions tons per year.

Brugmann says the greatest risks for the environment are major oil spills in areas with ice coverage, or otherwise low temperatures, where oil clean-up operations are very complicated, ineffective and expensive, and where only a minor fraction of the oil may evaporate into the atmosphere and degrade.

On a more positive note, Brugmann says there have been improvements in the level of artificial radio nuclides in the Baltic, stemming respectively from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and global fallout due to atmospheric nuclear weapons tests during the 1960's.

Brugmann also says that one of the best indicators of the Baltic Sea's returning health is the sanitary condition of its beaches, with most of the nine bordering countries reporting significant improvement in hygienic conditions along their coasts. According to recent data, the number of beaches with doubtful water quality has decreased, owing largely to new or improved sewage-treatment plants that are operating at previously polluted sites. Poland is a success story in this category, but other regions reporting an improvement include Parnu in Estonia, the coast of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany and Jurmala in Latvia at the Gulf of Riga. But Brugmann cautions that, with regard to the occurrence of potentially dangerous bacteria, there are still many problematic areas.

Brugmann also told RFE/RL that the Baltic Sea faces a continuing threat from the long-range transport of pollutants from other parts of the world. He said that up to 40 percent of metallic molecules in the Baltic Sea originated from Great Britain and Belgium and, more recently, the Czech Republic. What is particularly worrisome about these metals is that like the pesticide DDT or other pollutants, they have a long atmospheric life span and are easily transported.

Overall, however, Brugmann is "optimistic" that the pollution tide in the Baltic Sea is taking a turn for the better. He said that much of what is left now is of the question of cultural education, namely teaching the public to respect and care for their natural resources.