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EU: Sweden Urges Ecological Aid For St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad

European Union president Sweden is placing a priority on environmental programs, including upgrading the treatment of wastewater entering the Baltic Sea from Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The proposals may come up for discussion at the EU summit later this month (23-24 March) in Stockholm, where Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a guest. Plans to help the two Russian cities would set a precedent because of the possible involvement of the European Investment Bank, which normally finances projects only within the EU. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Baltic Sea, famed for its Nordic beauty, is sick. So serious is the pollution that Swedish health authorities have urged women of childbearing age to avoid consuming its fish. Salmon, once plentiful in the sea, is among species that are rarely found in the Baltic's waters today.

The most obvious sources of pollution are on the eastern side of the sea, in the former Soviet states, where little heed has been paid environmental concerns and where money is lacking for improvements.

A Dutch toxics expert, Wytze van der Naald, recently visited sites along the eastern shores, particularly in Russia. He tells RFE/RL:

"I've been there a couple of weeks ago, and it's incredible -- the state of the ongoing pollution there. I mean there is basically no water treatment at all."

But van der Naald, who works for the environmental organization Greenpeace International, says it would be too easy to blame Russia, the Baltic states, and Poland alone for the pollution. The western shoreline states have contributed their share. He notes that the Baltic Sea, with only a narrow outlet to the ocean -- between Denmark and Sweden -- has few possibilities to cleanse itself quickly of pollutants, particularly of persistent toxic chemicals.

"The pollution load in the Baltic is not the result only of the current discharges which are occurring in the [eastern] states, but also of the historic pollution in the whole area. So it's true that the Nordic countries especially have cleaned up their industry significantly, and that the old Soviet states are very much behind in the cleanup, but the pollution in total is the result of both the historic pollution and current discharges."

Against this background, EU president Sweden, as part of its Nordic Dimension Action Plan, is supporting investment projects which would cut water pollution from key Russian coastal sources.

Mats Ekenger of the Swedish Environment Ministry in Stockholm says his government places a high priority on this:

"We have as a priority to try to find a solution on the wastewater issues in the Baltic Sea, especially for Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad".

The assistance projects for the two cities is estimated to cost some $185 million in the first stage. The money could come from the EU's European Investment Bank -- or EIB -- the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Nordic Investment Bank, and other institutions. Reports say the projects may come up for discussion at next week's EU summit in Stockholm.

The involvement of the EIB would be unusual since the bank traditionally only supports projects within the EU. It would mark the first time the bank had participated in financing a project in Russia.

A spokesman for the Luxembourg-based EIB, Max Messner, says any involvement by the EIB would require the authorization of the 15 EU member states:

"Before we can actually go down and sign a loan agreement with the mayor of Saint Petersburg or the mayor of Kaliningrad, this being an exception, we still need the authorization of the owners of the EIB -- which are the 15 member countries of the European Union."

He says the bank already finances water-treatment plants in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, and that any investment in Kaliningrad or Saint Petersburg would have a proportionately greater impact on the overall water quality of the Baltic.

"There, [in the Western countries,] the purpose is to raise the water quality before the water goes into the Baltic Sea, let's say from a purity level of say 80 [percent] to 90 [percent], or from 90 to 95 [percent], and this requires huge investment. Now, there is also water going into the sea from -- let's say -- Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad, which is of a much worse quality because the treatment stations there do not exist or are inefficient. So that if you put the same amount of money there, you have a much, much bigger effect on the final water quality in the Baltic Sea."

It's not yet clear if this planned exception by the EIB would open up the prospect of wider participation by the bank in other Eastern development projects.