Phosphorite Sliding Back into Estonian Consciousness ({{commentsTotal}})

Columnist Alo Lõhmus.
Columnist Alo Lõhmus. Source: (Private library)

Phosphorite, the natural resource that helped topple Soviet power when Estonians took to the streets to protest planned mining, could be make a return, says Maaleht journalist Alo Lõhmus, whose translated ERR column is below.

Viru Keemia Grupp has clearly expressed a wish to begin prospecting studies at the Sonda deposits near Rakvere, and if results are positive, begin mining.

An annual yield of 4.4 million tons of phosphate rock would increase Estonia's GDP by 1.1 percent, bring in 63 million euros in tax and create over a thousand direct jobs, not to mention the indirect effect on the labor force.

Estonia has a whopping 2,936 million tons of the material under its surface, more than anywhere else in Europe. Added to that is the fact that our phosphorite is of higher quality compared to what is found in many African, Middle-Eastern and Chinese phosphorite deposits. A world with an ever-increasing demand for food, and thus also for fertilizer, would be happy to boost its agriculture at the expense of our geological bowels.

But what would phosphorite mining mean for Estonia? Environmental problems, those that were pointed out a quarter of a century earlier, have not lost their importance, despite sweet talk of “the advancement of technology.”

The phosphorite lies in layers of ground water, which would, in great quantities, have to be pumped out. That would affect wells, bogs, mires and springs tens of kilometers away.

Currently, mining giants crave the establishment of a small, only 90-square-kilometer, deep-level mine. But greed will grow and there is little doubt that phosphorite mining would not be expanded once initial mining has received a green light. Oil shale mining operations also used to be small and low-key.

Businesses and their scientist and politician allies say that natural resources belong to the state, which must “make them work for the state” to earn a profit. That line of thinking can be agreed with, but we must first ask what that profit would be.

I am convinced that Estonia's main resource is our clean nature, including clean water, air, forests, ground and all people living in the midst of that. Mining threatens all of the above, especially water, which is the source of all life. Semiotician Valdur Mikita said that Estonia is a place where nature, language and culture are all the same age and have grown up together. In draining water out of nature we unobservedly also draw water from our language and culture. People and their attachment to the area will leave mining regions and the collective memory will end.

But what of the heavy piles of money on offer for the phosphorite? We can answer by asking if that economic growth, which mining promises, is then even a goal worth attaining.

Kaupo Vipp's thought provoking "Global Hangover," which I recently read, paints a dark picture of the fate of our industrial society, which has been built on economic growth. An overpopulated humanity, running out of oil, is on the brink of very difficult times, or has already entered those times. The evident collapse that will follow the current crisis will see the end of the industrial civilization in its current form that we have accustomed to.

In this new world, people will have no use for GDP, credit ratings and financial products, only nature and skills to survive on their own. Estonia could successfully cope with changes: we have a sizable forest-areas, fields, water and peasant wisdom. If we can limit the mining greed of our businessmen, we could save oil shale and phosphorite for more critical times. They could turn out to be the real saviors of the Estonian people. If used in a sensible and economic fashion for our own needs, they could permit us to survive in the changed conditions.

But if we were to turn the phosphorite into money now, we would be left with nothing but empty wastelands and bank accounts stuffed with virtual money that by that time may have lost its use. 

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