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Court fines businessman culpable in major river pollution over €20,000

Dead fish in the polluted Umbusi River, July 2022.
Dead fish in the polluted Umbusi River, July 2022. Source: Silver Vahi

The first-tier Tartu County Court has fined a businessman €20,000 over environmental damage arising from the pollution of a river in South Estonia.

Lembit Paal, board member of Pajusi ABF, was hit with the fine, plus costs, following last summer's incident, on the Umbrusi river in Jõgeva County.

Pajusi ABF itself was fined also.

District prosecutor Allar Nisu, leading the proceedings, said of the case that: "If it transpires that a business and its representatives have not act sufficiently to prevent or prevent a pollution incident, despite the duty of care they have in this respect, then this constitutes a crime."

"Criminal proceedings must impact both the public and the accused, in order to raise awareness and prevent further possible incidents and damage," Nisu continued.

Paal has been fined just over €20,000, while AS Pajusi has been fined a similar sum. Doing so would send the necessary societal signal, the court said.

The court found that Paal should have ensured both that rainwater did not penetrate into silage storage areas and that run-off did not then flow into the surrounding environment. He failed in both tasks, the court added, noting that the silo in question was not sited or constructed correctly and was of the wrong type for the task.

Paal is also liable for costs, amounting to €1,087.50.

Paal had been overseeing the production of pea silage at the Kalana farm in Jõrgava County in late July 2022, using a chemical cocktail containing formic acid, propionic acid and sodium benzoate, hazardous substances under the Chemicals Act.

Rainwater which had seeped into the uncovered silage then washed these contents into the nearby Umbusi River, which led to significant pollution and the deaths of thousands of brown trout, crayfish and other riverine species.

Paal will also be liable for environmental damage to the river itself, pending the results of an Environmental Board (Keskonnaamet)  administrative proceeding.

The court decision has yet to enter into force, while an appeal may be filed within 15 days of the court ruling.

At the time, it was estimated that it would take weeks for the Umbusi's water quality to return to normal, while Paal could have faced a jail sentence, though this would likely have been wholly or partly suspended.

The 45-km long Umbusi flows into the Pedja river and in turn into the Emajõgi, Estonia's second largest and only navigable river. The Emajõgi discharges into Peipsi järv.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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