Justice chancellor: Environmental Board's practices unlawful

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Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise points out that the Environmental Board's practices of stopping deforestation are not according to law. The justice chancellor says that while suspending felling works is not forbidden and neither is the issuance of precepts, the board could avoid the latter proactively.

"Administrative practice that does not take into account the requirements of legislation, is arbitrary and therefore illegal," the justice chancellor pointed out to Environmental Board director Riho Kuppart in a letter on Monday, daily Postimees reported (link in Estonian).

Spokespeople of the justice chancellor's office told ERR that issuing precepts is not unlawful, but it could have been avoided when it comes to suspending construction of the Kanama-Valingu stretch of highway in Harju County.

The Environmental Board should have instead assessed the possible effects of deforestation on nesting after the works were registered in the forest registry and not while construction was ongoing.

The chancellor's office added that the Environmental Board should be aware of the locations, species and timing of Estonian birds' nesting periods and could notice developers of possibly having to suspend developments ahead of time.

The justice chancellor has received multiple letters over the last few weeks, in which forestry entrepreneurs express their anger about the board suspending logging projects to ensure peace during bird nesting after previously allowing the works to be initiated.

"The Environmental Board has caused much confusion among entrepreneurs by stopping felling projects unexpectedly and damages that could have been avoided with legitimate practice cannot be ruled out," the justice chancellor said.

The largest damage claim - €1.7 million - comes from developer TREV-2 who was working on the aforementioned highway section when the Environmental Board suspended development after finding more than a hundred birds' nests in a nearby forest. Environmental Board acting director Olav Avarsalu said on Vikerraadio that TREV-2 knew of the risks when they signed the contract.

Madise said, however, that stopping developments unexpectedly after receiving complaints should be the last straw to protect birds. "This kind of practice might not ensure equal treatment of people and could give a competitive edge to those whose felling works are not stopped as there are no complaints," the justice chancellor said.

"It is incomprehensible and unfortunate that the board has likely not assessed the legality prior to felling, otherwise they would not have been able to give out permits for the works suspended with precepts. Therefore, environmental officials have created a situation that they themselves are now retroactively trying to avoid by issuing precepts," Madise added.

The board has ignored the justice chancellor's position on topics relating to bird nesting for two years. Back then, the chancellor assessed the killing of chicks during logging as indirect killing. Since the Environmental Board is to assess the capacity of logging and the number of nesting birds in a specific area, the board should have dispersed logging works in order to protect birds, Postimees reported.

The Riigikogu approved an EU directive on the conservation of wild birds in 2008, which prohibits deliberate disturbance of birds during their nesting periods. The board should have limited the time of felling when registering felling permits years ago and forced entrepreneurs to take advantage of logging methods less disturbing to wild birds. The law would have also allowed the board to amend already issued permits.

The justice chancellor noted that the Environmental Board has not fulfilled its obligations. Madise also expects a response from the board and the Ministry of the Environment by August 15 about their steps to ensure that logging in the spring-summer period is up to the requirements and is more clear to entrepreneurs, allowing them to be treated fairly.

"We will analyze the justice chancellor's position in detail with colleagues from the environment ministry and will formulate our next steps. The Environmental Board hopes that the planned amendments to the Nature Conservation Act and other acts also creates the necessary time and substantial clarity for all involved parties.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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