Vesterbacka to handle Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel environmental survey ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Peter Vesterbacka.
Peter Vesterbacka. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Even though the government decided not to initiate a state spatial plan for a tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki, Finnish visionary Peter Vesterbacka has not given up on the plan. The developer wants to handle the tunnel's environmental impact assessment himself and apply for a new spatial plan once it is done. At the same time, Estonia and Finland have not yet discussed whether and how to construct the tunnel and who should handle it.

Minister of Public Administration Jaak Aab (Center) said in late July that he will make a proposal to the government not to initiate a state spatial plan for the Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel. Aab pointed to a series of unanswered questions at the government press conference.

"We do not see a specific solution and development based on this information," the minister said, adding that the government doubts the developer's time frame and cost-effectiveness calculations. Estonia also has no certainty in terms of who would fund the project or which expenses would have to be covered by the state in the end.

Project developer Finest Bay Area Consulting OÜ decided to withdraw the plan application. Paul Künnap, partner at law firm Sorainen that represents the developer in Estonia, emphasized that the tunnel plan is still alive. The developer will simply change its approach.

"New legislation in Estonia now makes it possible to handle environmental impact assessments separately from permit proceedings," Künnap explained.

The lawyer said that many of the government's questions were meant to be answered by the environmental effects assessment that is usually performed as part of a state spatial plan. Now, the idea is to evaluate environmental impact outside the plan.

"It will probably be much easier to move on with plans and other things then," Künnap said, adding that the developer has opted for a similar strategy in Finland. "The environmental impact assessment has already been initiated as a separate process in Finland," Künnap said.

Deputy head of the Ministry of Finance's planning department Tiit Oidjärv explained that an environmental effects assessment concentrates mainly on the natural environment and how the project could affect people's property or health. A state spatial plan will require a strategic environmental impact assessment the scope of which is broader. Oidjärv added that while the findings of the initial assessment can be used in the strategic assessment and the spatial plan, it is impossible to conduct all necessary surveys before the state spatial plan is initiated.

Developer waiting for agreement between Estonia and Finland

An environmental impact assessment that means millions worth of surveys and thorough work constitutes a business risk for the company. The government might decide in light of survey results that the tunnel is not feasible and that a state spatial plan will not be initiated. Moreover, even if a spatial plan is initiated, there is no guarantee it will not be shelved half-way in or that a building permit will follow. That is why the company plans to move for the assessment after the governments of Estonia and Finland sign a mutual intentions protocol for the tunnel.

"Talks are underway for a mutual understanding protocol between Estonia and Finland," Künnap said. "We realize that it has been deemed necessary on the political level in Estonia. And we must admit that because there have been so many conflicting messages concerning the tunnel from the Estonian side, it would be better also for investors to have the protocol and for Estonia to express its desire to move forward with the project more clearly."

Chief specialist for the transport development and investments department of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications Eva Killar said that official negotiations are yet to be held, with the memorandum set to detail both countries' main expectations and demands.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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