MS Estonia shipwreck investigator needs more funds
The Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau wants additional funding from the government in order to complete its work and answer questions in society. Minister of Finance Annely Akkermann sees no need for additional funding nor reason to doubt the conclusions of the official shipwreck report.
The Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee discussed financing for the reopened investigation into the MS Estonia shipwreck on Wednesday.
Participants included Minister of Finance Annely Akkermann, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications Undersecretary Ahti Kuningas, head of the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau Rene Arikas and head of the Mare Liberum Foundation that is conducting a parallel investigation Margus Kurm.
The government launched preparations for an additional investigation into the causes of the shipwreck in the fall of 2020. "Unfortunately, payments were held back and the finance minister failed to take an additional funding request from the bureau to the cabinet. Surveys have stalled due to lack of funds, committee chair Tõnis Mölder said.
Ahti Kuningas said that the request for funding came right after the government had collapsed and the interim cabinet decided not to make any major fiscal decisions. "It was not political unwillingness to investigate the MS Estonia disaster," he added.
But the undersecretary added that he wants to see preparedness from Sweden to co-finance underwater surveys. "Or at the very least have one country carry out one survey, and the other another," Kuningas said. He emphasized that the Safety Investigation Bureau is independent and the ministry does not interfere in its budget.
Mölder said that the bureau's independence depends on its funding. "When the MS Estonia investigation process started, doubts had appeared in society. Time has moved on since. Does the minister [Annely Akkermann] perceive a problem that without additional funding, the bureau's independence could be called into question and the suspicion created that the government is torpedoing the investigation because its findings might clash with the official report?" Mölder inquired.
Akkermann said that she does not dare say society is not happy with the original report. "Major doubts, which I find baseless, in no way justify bypassing due fiscal process that needs to be fair and transparent," the finance minister said.
She added that the investigation has not been stuck behind funding. "Looking at the state of affairs, there are unused funds and the economy ministry has not put in an additional funding request," Akkermann said, adding that while changes in the state budget are possible, it is not currently evident that lack of funds has obstructed the surveys.
Rene Arikas said that Estonia is responsible for ensuring funding after involving Finland and Sweden as MS Estonia's flag country. "We offered them the chance to participate in initial assessments. In terms of funding, we agreed that Estonia and Sweden would both come up with €3 million. It is a show of good faith from them. Finland and Sweden also decriminalized diving to the wreck," Arikas offered.
He added that there are several areas where the initial report requires correction. "The final report is from 1997, and I can already say, based on the data we have, that we will make adjustments. Technology has come along since then, we have much more input from interviews, and we have reason to adjust the findings," Arikas said.
The bureau plans to hold tenders for new surveys once it has the necessary funds. "Our plan today is to publish the interim report and fix the state of affairs in late January. We will continue with surveys and interviews if we have the means. The second interim report should be ready in the second half of next year. But provided additional funds will not be allocated, we will have to use the interim report for the summary and will not be able to answer certain questions," the bureau chief remarked.
A parallel private investigation into the shipwreck is being conducted by the Mare Liberum Foundation. Project lead Marek Kurm said that they have made an expedition to the wreck to film it and draw up a 3D model using photogrammetry. Kurm said that the project is working with two groups of scientists from Norway and Singapore. "Based on the results of their work, we can say there are two hypotheses for the shipwreck's cause. One is the original and official version according to which damage to the bow ramp caused the ferry to sink. Existing information also suggests a hypothesis where the ferry collided with another vessel, whether an underwater one or not, that damaged its right side and caused events to spiral from there," Kurm said.
He said that the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau and Mare Liberum have been duplicating the same tasks and could coordinate their actions and cooperate instead. "We have been doing the same thing. We have two 3D models of the wreck now. With investigating whichever accident, there are two phases: collection and analysis of evidence. The private and public investigations could cooperate in the former, while experts could work independently on analysis. The more groups of analysis we have, the better, as we have reason to believe their findings should they overlap," he said.
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Marcus Turovski, Mari Peegel