Peeter Ernits: Why is the cabinet hiding culprits of cold storage scandal?

Peeter Ernits.
Peeter Ernits. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The recent government decision to have the taxpayer pay €3.4 million for vaccines that were allowed to spoil in Health Board cold storage is nothing short of infuriating, MP Peeter Ernits writes.

When State Secretary Taimar Peterkop presented his Health Board cold storage incident report, I started to believe that all might not be lost yet. The Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee had spent a long time untangling the case of the vaccines spoiling and the state secretary's report confirmed our suspicions.

The report showed with merciless clarity how loosely and irresponsibly things work in Estonia. The state secretary said during the presentation that the level of disregard on all levels had frankly been baffling. It seemed that the matter would be seen through, those responsible found and "heads sent rolling."

The public and the media agreed. Postimees wrote in its editorial, "The investigation must not succumb to the realization that responsibility has dissipated and that the whole incident was an unfortunate coincidence."

The state secretary's committee proposed the Ministry of Finance determine who should be sent a claim for damages for Health Board cold storage design and construction mistakes and what should be the volume of the claim. It also turned to the Prosecutor's Office.

The sins of the architects

The sins of the architects of the incident are roughly as follows.

Designers OÜ Estkonsult failed to consider cold storage requirements and did not ensure the rationality and compatibility of different parts and solutions of the project, the design documentation was not in accordance with requirements pursuant to the Construction Act, Planning and Building Act and the initial task. The designer did not ensure the rationality and compatibility of different parts and solutions of the project in various stages of design.

Main contractor Oma Ehitaja AS failed to comply with requirements and regulations included in public procurement source documents, failed to check whether the basic project corresponded to the needs of the customer, did not ensure the rationality and compatibility of different parts and solutions of the project, ignored its lawful notification obligation and failed to report circumstances that affected the building's conformity with requirements.

J-Inseneribüroo OÜ that was in charge of project supervision failed to establish that project documentation was not in line with the initial task and building code requirements, failed to assess measures aimed at ensuring reliability of cold storage facilities, technical specifications and mutual compatibility. Sweco EST OÜ, in charge of owner supervision, did not check the suitability of design documentation technical solutions.

The Health Board failed to pay enough attention to and persist in efforts to try and find a solution for problems that had manifested with cold storage facilities, failed to evaluate or manage risks associated with procuring medicines and had not paid enough attention to monitoring cold storage temperatures, analyzing monitoring system logs or testing the system itself.

The board furthermore failed to lay down precise and clear instructions for cold storage maintenance and corresponding conditions. The Health Board did not comply with its heightened due diligence requirement pursuant to the law and in place for medicines wholesalers.

Even though the board has a medicines wholesale license, meaning that all activities that affect the quality of medicines, their effectiveness and safety and corresponding contracts need to be evaluated by a capable person and approved based on relevant regulations, this had not been done.

State Real Estate Ltd. (RKAS) that did not pay enough technical attention to cold storage facilities as the developer and manager of the building and failed to analyze the true cause of problems when they manifested approved the work of the designer, builder and firms exercising supervision without filing any complaints nor did it file claims against the contractor for faulty work during the warranty period.

If someone thinks that these companies the work done by which merited such a condemning assessment from the state secretary's committee are unknown two-bit undertakings, they are sorely mistaken.

The designer OÜ Estkonsult has been active since the 1990s, its main activities are design, project analysis and owner supervision. The company is a member of the Estonian Construction Consultants Association and a founding member of the Estonian Construction Center.

Works by Estkonsult include the Eesti Telekom office building, Porto Franco, Ülemiste traffic hub, Estonian embassy buildings in Beijing and Vilnius, Kristiine, Ülemiste and Tasku shopping malls and the environment house and the new ERR television building projects. The company is managed by doctor of technical sciences, category eight civil engineer Ahti Lääne.

Oma Ehitaja AS that constructed the Health Board building is also a respected firm with a lot of experience. Their website reads: "A good and diligent builder is always hard to find. We are a steadfast partner in construction and real estate solutions. Our goal is to design and construct buildings that meet our customers' needs and expectations."

Oma Ehitaja also boasts a long and dignified line of accomplishments, including buildings in the Rotermann Quarter, the Noblessner Foundry, Viljandi State High School and the Narva border point extension. The company is currently busy renovating Government Office buildings on Toompea. The firm is managed by deputy chair of the council of the influential Estonian Employers Confederation and long-time head of the Estonian Association of Construction Entrepreneurs Tiit Kuuli.

OÜ J-Inseneribüroo that was in charge of project analysis was founded in 2007 to exercise owner supervision for the restoration and construction of buildings in the Rotermann Quarter. J-Inseneribüroo is one of the central customers of RKAS. The company is run by Jaak Sori.

Sweco EST OÜ, in charge of owner supervision, advertises itself as follows: "Always in the best interests of our customers," adding: "Owner supervision represents the customer in the construction process. Its aim is to ensure construction work progressing in accordance with project documentation, compliance with construction norms and ensuring the quality of construction. As the customer's representative, we take on the role of a consultant and "guard" and never miss a single inadequacy. The company also boasts a long list of well-known works and is currently working on the new building of the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) following a commission from RKAS.

Why did the government give up?

If at first it seemed that "heads would roll," it became increasingly obvious in the second half of autumn that the government is trying to forget about the embarrassing incident.

The first step was taken by the Prosecutor's Office when it said there are no grounds for criminal proceedings after over €3 million of damage was done to the state.

The government also did not deem it necessary to take political responsibility. Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) said on numerous occasions that while the situation was depressing, finger-pointing would not be helpful. The screw-ups responsible for the incident no longer work at the Health Board or RKAS.

Secretary General of the Ministry of Social Affairs Marika Priske and Health Board Director General Üllar Lanno were sacrificed instead. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said, when answering my question in the Riigikogu, that Lanno has already assumed responsibility.

The government finally put the matter to bed last week when it said that not a single public official or company needs take responsibility for the incident. Given as the reason was avoiding agencies filing mutual damages claims and future court battles.

But there is another possibility. Perhaps the government simply wants to avoid falling out with influential people and organizations.

The fact that the Health Board's wretched building was designed by Ilona Taimur, partner of long-time Center Party Secretary General Mihhail Korb, is perhaps not the most crucial aspect. What is noteworthy is who constructed the building. It is deputy chair of the council of the Estonian Employers Confederation, long-time head of the Estonian Association of Construction Entrepreneurs and major Reform Party sponsor Tiit Kuuli.

CEO of Oma Ehitus Kaido Fridolin has expressed his surprise over the fact his firm is being associated with the incident. They constructed the building based on RKAS design documentation, the building's warranty period is long over and the customer has not filed a single protest.

Indeed, the basic project of the Health Board building was drawn up by Estkonsult, while it did not include the requirement for cold storage facilities. The latter appeared when construction was already in full swing and the contractor was working on the project as he went along. Only then did the screw-ups at RKAS and the Health Board discover that the building needed to have cold storage facilities working 24/7. It was under their guidance that Chinese refrigeration units were quickly found that not only failed to meet requirements but did not even have a marketing permit at the time.

Therefore, the government is trying to stop people realizing the true scope of incompetence and criminal negligence that is running rampant in state agencies. It would simply be too painful to watch and listen to.

What would happen if the heads of the Health Board admitted that the floor-heated cold storage is just one problem in a long line and that the building has so many it could be called a funhouse? What would happen if the designer, builder and those in charge of supervision started telling stories of just how irresponsibly representatives of the state acted?

By the way, we still do not know the names of said RKAS and Health Board screw-ups who have all found new hunting grounds by now. We also do not know the contribution of the then Director of the Health Board Tiiu Aro and RKAS head Urmas Somelar.

There is no hope any of it will happen any differently in the future unless we talk about all of these things publicly and in exhausting detail.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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