Fishing lobbyists challenge government over Linnamäe hydroelectric dam

Dam at the Linnamäe hydroelectric plant in Jõelähtme.
Dam at the Linnamäe hydroelectric plant in Jõelähtme. Source: Marko Tooming/ERR

Fishing lobby groups are challenging a government order which allows a hydroelectric power station near Jõelähtme, east of Tallinn, to continue working, despite being located in a nature conservation area.

The latest phase in a long-running controversy pits the Ministry of the Environment and its agencies, specifically the Environmental Board (Keskonnaamet), against the Ministry of Culture.

The Linnamäe hydroelectric power station, built during the period of the First Estonian Republic and restored to capacity in 2002 – the building had been badly damaged by occupying Soviet forces during World War Two – can supply electricity to around 2,000 households or, for instance in a crisis situation, one major hospital, ERR reports. It is situated on the Jägala river and is one of only a few sources of hydroelectric-generated power in Estonia.

The power station and its accompanying dam, designed over a century ago have been the focus of disputes close to two decades.

The Estonian society of ichthyology (Eesti Ihtüoloogia Selts), the Estonian fishermen's association (Eesti Kalastajate Selts) and the NGO Jägala kalateed want a government order, which they say was unlawful, canceled, and the Environmental Board to announce that a water permit will not be issued to the hydroelectric power station.

"After that, the restoration of the Jägala nature area can start," a joint press release issued by the three organizations stated.

Several lawyers have analyzed the government order and found many points of illegality, the organizations say, both with reference to the Estonian Constitution and to EU law.

The organizations believe that the Ministry of Culture, which wants the dam, which is a protected heritage monument to be used for electricity production, took on tasks usually carried out by the Environmental Board this spring, and carried out a new analysis of the Jägala nature area, an EU Natura 2000 zone, on its own initiative, then submitted it to the government with a draft decision.   

The Ministry of the Environment and the Environment Board, which is under the ministry's purview, have clearly made statements in favor of ensuring passage for fish, whereas the Ministry of Culture and the Heritage Protection Board (Munisuskaitseamet), under its auspices also, have consistently been opposed to demolishing the dam or altering it in any other way. 

The Jõelähtme municipality and local residents have generally also sided more with the culture ministry's side, ERR reports, while the municipality claims the power station provides a vital service.

Former culture minister Tiit Terik (Center) said in early May that as a cultural object, the dam is in the best position when it is used and when it is not altered.

"Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource, and if the object is destroyed, it cannot be returned," Terik said after the government's decision on the matter on May 5, adding in an unimprovable-upon line that then-environment minister Erki Savisaar (Center) had: "Fought for and defended fishes' rights" but had also expressed satisfaction that the government had opted to leave the dam unchanged, Terik said.

Of 22 organizations asked for an opinion, 16 responded, Terik said, with half of these in favor of maintaining the dam as it is.

The organizations protesting the continuation of the dam's use say that this does not acknowledge the fact that the buildings and dam have been substantially reconstructed during their history.

The Jägala nature area is a suitable habitat for several protected species, such as otters, common bream and salmon, the organizations say.

EU directives state that the domestic government may give consent for activities which can negatively impact the natural habitat and wildlife within the nature reserve only under certain conditions, conditions which the Environmental Board says have not been met.

The organizations also point out that since the power station produces one tenth of one percent of Estonia's electricity needs, it does not constitute a vital service provider – a position the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications also held, as of June 2020.

The Supreme Court also states that the Environmental Board is the relevant, competent authority for making the decisions.

The hydroelectric dam was designed in 1917 by noted Finnish engineer Axel Werner Juselius, while the hydroelectric plant became a reality in 1924, during the period of the First Estonian Republic.

In 1941, occupying Soviet forces destroyed the original building, though the dam survived. The power station was restored in 2002 by state generator Eesti Energia and with financial support from hundreds of private donors.

In 2016, the fish ladder and weir belonging to the Linnamäe hydroelectric power station were recognized as culturally protected.

Archaeological sites dating from the seventh millennium BC to the eleventh century AD, and a nearby bat colony are other local factors, on both sides of the argument.

Two former hydroelectric power stations on the Jägala river were also used as locations in the cult 1979 sci-fi thriller "Stalker", directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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