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Busier Baltic Sea struggles with pollution, safety

Russia plans to expand the port of Primorsk, further straining the waterway.

By Colin WoodardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2003


A massive British luxury liner squeezes between a Portuguese passenger vessel and an enormous Estonian car ferry, with no more than 100 feet to spare. Near the harbor entrance, cargo ships pass to and fro, while out in the Gulf of Finland, tankers, ferries, and container ships clutter the horizon.

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At peak hours, traffic at this Baltic port looks like a Jurassic-scale traffic jam.

The eastern Baltic Sea is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, where the oil and cargo traffic of St. Petersburg and western Russia cross paths with dozens of ferries linking Estonia's capital with Helsinki, Finland. Ships make nearly 40,000 port calls each year in the Gulf of Finland alone, an average of more than 100 dockings every day, despite harsh winters that cover the gulf in dangerous pack ice.

But as bad as it is, traffic in the Baltic is about to get far worse, prompting calls for stricter safety standards and environmental monitoring.

Russia is expanding its port in the Gulf of Finland, including a giant new oil terminal at Primorsk, north of St. Petersburg. As a result, ship traffic in the area will jump 25 percent by 2050, while tanker traffic will triple, according to Finland's VTT Technical Research Center. Meanwhile, more passengers are likely to ply the sea next year when Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania join the European Union.

"We are facing far too big risks from the increased oil transport in this area," says Pekka Korpinen, deputy mayor of Helsinki. He was in Tallinn earlier this month attending a conference on the Baltic's problems hosted by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the senior figure in the Orthodox Christian church, who is gaining a reputation as the "green patriarch."

Mr. Korpinen called on the EU to pressure Russia to address his country's concerns about the increased risks of a serious accident.

Spill tops concerns

What environmental experts fear most is a major oil spill, which would be particularly devastating to the Baltic, a shallow, nearly enclosed sea whose ecological integrity has already been seriously undermined by pollution and overfishing.

Concerns were heightened at the end of May, when a Chinese ship, the Fu Shan Hai, sank after colliding with a freighter at the mouth of the Baltic. The ship was carrying fertilizer, not petroleum, and the resulting oil spill was small. But a collision involving one of the Primorsk-bound tankers - which carry in excess of 100,000 tons of oil - would be a different matter.

"The Baltic is a very fragile system with very serious environmental problems," says marine scientist Andris Andrusaitis of the University of Latvia in Riga. "If a major spill were to happen, the recovery time for this system would be tremendously long."

Life in the Baltic has been compromised in many ways by the 85 million people living around it. There's been overfishing and dumping of toxins. Ships have introduced destructive creatures from other parts of the world, including a parasitic worm with a taste for the swim bladders of native eels. There are hundreds of minor oil spills here every year, many of them intentional releases of contaminated bilge water.