Studies carried out in the southern Pärnu County section of the planned Rail Baltica high-speed rail link find the development would interfere with forests there to the extent that its construction would likely require a European Union Natura 2000 exception.
One alternative may be to construct a tunnel around part of the rail link.
When the planned rail route was drawn up, no assessment was made on how it might affect the Luitemaa bird reserve, which is under Natura protection.
Who made the decision and why did not become clear, even in the late spring of 2020, when the Supreme Court declared part of the Pärnu County planning invalid.
Officials had reportedly referred to the Natura assessment document as a "formality", expressing the hope that an updated plan will be established by the end of 2021 at the latest.
Later on, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications referred to the end of 2023, while at the beginning of October this year, in the context of the national Rail Baltica steering group, Heddy Klasen, head of the spatial planning department at the Ministry of Finance, stated that it was realistic to reach implementation in the last quarter of 2024.
The rail link had originally been scheduled to start operation in 2026, but this date has now been put back several years, not only due to environmental concerns.
There are different answers to the question of why the error correction on the southern Pärnu County section has taken so long.
Andres Lindemann, Rail Baltica adviser to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said for example, that there is a paucity of the necessary experts in Estonia. Almost half of the environmental team working on the project have been hired from Latvia as it is, he said, which: "Brings with it its own difficulties."
Translation is one of these, Lindemann added.
"The working language is English, and the conclusions must all be sent in Estonian at a later date. There are many such practical questions that led to a longer stay."
Officials have also sent the documents back for correction on more than one occasion, while its volume has also increased significantly.
Meanwhile, the realization that the previously forgotten Natura evaluation was not a mere formality dawned gradually.
Brake put on the design
For instance last summer officials had already selected a rail corridor where more was staked than was on alternatives.
Analysis ordered from Skepast & Puhkim found fifteen characteristics of six route alternatives being evaluated, starting with cost and ending with the accident risk.
The most points were given to the further development of the very corridor which had been canceled by the Supreme Court, and which was slightly shifted to the west for ten kilometers.
A few months later, studies were started on that corridor. "However, once we had a strategic assessment of the environmental impact and a Natura report prepared, more and more information came to us, leading to the conclusion that we had to slow down the design process somewhat," Lindemann said.
The effects of route corridors on the Natura areas of Pärnu County are meanwhile still being assessed.
Eleri Kautlenbach, adviser from the Ministry of Finance, says she believes that the evaluation report will be ready in December. However, important input has already been received from the experts.
"At the moment, we suspect that we will probably see an adverse effect on the Rail Baltica line which cannot be fully mitigated," Kautlenbach said.
Supreme Court case gave rise to new knowledge
Concerns about wildlife feature particularly highly.
Rare species do not tolerate noise pollution easily and while a tunnel or sound-excluding walls of 5m in height along a 40km stretch would help, both options would be costly, while the wall option would also inhibit some wildlife in its movement.
Of other concerns, Lindemann said: "For example, following one major survey of wild boar, we have even more extensive knowledge on the life and situation of this species in the region."
"These effects turned out to be even more far-reaching than we could have predicted perhaps seven or eight years ago," he added.
Government can decide on Natura 2000 exception
While this does not mean the link will not be built, the process is likely to take longer than expected, as a result.
If the impact on Natura's conservation objectives is so great that it cannot be mitigated locally, a Natura exception can be requested.
Kautlenbach noted that the government decides on the exception, but in order to obtain it, the Ministry of Finance must first analyze whether the establishment of of Rail Baltica is unavoidably necessary and whether there are no alternatives.
"If these exceptional and primary reasons really exist, then we can start preparing a compensation plan for Natura's distinctiveness," Kautlenbach added.
Foolwing this plan, under the guidance of the Ministry of the Environment, options for compensating the damage done to the Natura area elsewhere will be examined.
"These will likely involve the formation of new permanent habitats for the wild boar and additional restoration activities to create such habitats in areas which would be amenable for wild boar," Kautlenbach said.
Estonia has little experience in such matters, beyond Natura zones. One clear example from June this year saw the government introducing a special plan for the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) central training area.
An expansion to this impinged on areas used by boar, black stork and other wildlife species such as capercaillie (pictured), resulting in protected areas nearby to be widened, as well as in other areas of the country.
The Holdre marshland in Valga County is one such area.
"In general, these new protected areas are wider than the areas that are affected. We always try to find broader goals for these than the protection of one narrow species," Lindemann went on.
Construction may not be carried out until compensation is paid
Lindemann added that the rail segment's design, which seems to have lost its momentum in the meantime, does not have to wait until 2024.
When Natura's evaluation of all route alternatives is done, socio-economic calculations, technical analysis and other necessary things, are to be added to the study, after which it should become clear again which route alternative is the best.
"In the summer period next year, we could again take this to the public and introduce the preferred route alternative, together with the completed strategic assessment of the environmental impact, and the Natura report," Lindemann added.
After that, the design in the selected corridor should get a new momentum again. "And construction must not begin until the activities described in the plan have been implemented," Kautlenbach noted.
What implementation means depends on the government's decision. In a simplified sense, the government can also state that the rail link must not be constructed until the wildlife has become accustomed to its new habitats. In the case of the EDF central training area, however, simpler rules were set up.
"Based on the plan for compensation measures, those measures relating to the creation of new areas or the expansion of existing ones are deemed to have been implemented, if the procedure for taking a specific area under protection and/or changing the protection order has been initiated by the directive of the Minister of the Environment," the relevant government order states.
Editor: Andrew Whyte