Alexander Lott: Nord Stream explosions and Estonia's environmental security

The Baltic Sea.
The Baltic Sea. Source: Saar

The construction of the Nord Stream pipelines breached international environmental law's precautionary principle and ecosystem approach. In addition, in the aftermath of the Second World War about 230,000 tons of chemical weapons were dumped into the Baltic Sea and the Skagerrak Strait at sites near the current Nord Stream gas pipelines, writes Alexander Lott, a fellow at the Norwegian Center for the Law of the Sea and lecturer in administrative law at the University of Tartu.

This week, Nord Stream gas pipelines exploded in the Danish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) near the island of Bornholm. The gas is seeping from three points, two of which are near the Swedish border and one near the Polish border. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suspects Russian sabotage.

Seismologists in the Nordic countries detected explosions reaching 2.3 magnitude in the same places where large quantities of gas are currently leaking into the sea. These explosions are, moreover, worrying because large quantities of chemical weapons have been buried on the seafloor near Bornholm.

These explosions are the outcome to the risks that scientists, politicians and environmental activists have been warning the European public about in relation to the Nord Stream pipelines, particularly in Poland and the Baltic countries, for years.

Given the environmental damage caused by Nord Stream, Baltic representatives should consider how to avoid future errors.

This may require changes to the way things are currently done (lobbying guidelines, environmental impact assessment strategies) or the legal framework governing environmental protection.

This is further evidenced by the fact that Nord Stream itself commissioned the pipeline's environmental impact assessment (EIA). "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

Impact of gas leaks on the marine ecosystem

Unlike open oceans, the semi-enclosed Baltic Sea is highly vulnerable to current gas leaks and chemical weapon pollution. For example, in 1982 and 1985 experts attributed mass fish mortality in the semi-enclosed Sea of Azov to gas leaks preceding these events.

In light of the above, the precautionary principle was important in assessing the environmental implications of Nord Stream. Nonetheless, the risk associated with gas leakage was deemed insignificant by the assessment.

The Nord Stream gas pipeline runs alongside the main shipping routes in the Baltic Sea. The gas pipeline was thus threatened from the start by ship anchors, which could cause explosive leaks in the event of a collision with the pipeline.

While ship anchors are responsible for an about 90 percent of marine contamination from gas pipelines worldwide, the current explosions in three different locations, on the other hand, were clearly not caused by careless anchor use.

Gas leaks have added to the already fragile marine ecosystem in the Baltic Sea. However, little is known about the long-term effects of chemical compounds discharged into the Baltic Sea on marine ecosystems, as well as the potential dangers to humans posed by harmful substances that may enter the food chain.

The threat of underwater explosions and chemical weapons

The surface damage caused by the explosions has been observed but the extent of the damage to the seafloor is unknown. Worryingly, the area is rife with chemical weapons.

Following World War II, over 230,000 tons of chemical weapons were dumped into the Baltic Sea and Skagerrak Strait, according to my research at the International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Two storage facilities are in close proximity to the Nord Stream gas pipelines. They are located east of Bornholm and south-east of Gotland and are reported to hold 55,000 tons of chemical weapons.

The Nord Stream pipes do not pass these storage facilities. However, chemical weapons were thrown into the sea at random spots en route to their primary disposal sites, and the whereabouts of these dumping places are unknown. Even if the chemical weapons containers near Bornholm are already corroded and weak, it is still unlikely that the explosions could affected them.

Nord Stream and Estonian maritime territory

The pipeline does not cross Estonian waters because the Estonian government did not grant permission in 2007 and 2012 for the marine scientific research necessary for the laying of the initial Nord Stream pipelines or their extension in its exclusive economic zone. This decision was far-sighted and bold, as different from other states' practice on the law of the sea at the time.

Nonetheless, the pipelines run close to Estonia's coast from Narva Bay to the center of the Baltic Sea. The pipelines surround our marine area for nearly the same length as their route in the Swedish maritime zone. Nord Stream pipelines were built on land and in the sea along the Tartu border treaty lines (location near the Narva River: Google Maps "Nordstream 2").

As a matter of legal interest, it is worth noting that the damaged pipes are located in "parts of Estonia not under Estonian jurisdiction" according to the Estonian State Borders Act (current 22(1)). This area has been given special protection by several environmental treaties, both at sea and on land.

Lessons learned

A land route for Nord Stream to Germany via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland would protect the delicate marine ecosystem of the Baltic Sea more effectively. This route would have been comparable in length to the underwater route of the Nord Stream pipes. In the event of damage, it is much easier to repair onshore pipelines than marine pipelines. Also, an onshore route was assessed to be the more economically viable option.

The initial environmental impact analysis for the Nord Stream project reportedly did not include the land-based option since none of the Baltic Sea coastal states requested it at the time.

Concerning the Nord Stream 2 project, I submitted a position paper to the project's states of origin via the ministry of the environment, emphasizing the failure to analyze the onshore option in a timely manner.

This was in May 2013, when the public was given the opportunity to view and react on the Nord Stream expansion project's environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The four comments received during the public consultation were forwarded to the countries of origin by the Estonian Ministry of Environment in June of the same year (from the Estonian Maritime Administration, the Estonian Environmental Board, the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) and myself). Nevertheless, the environmental impact analysis commissioned by the Nord Stream consortium did not consider the onshore alternative for the pipelines nor did it address my views at the time.

In sum, the development of the Nord Stream pipelines violated international environmental law's precautionary principle and ecosystem approach. Both the EIA's procedural and substantive criteria were breached.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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