Luude: On-site incinerator could have reduced Suur-Sõjamäe fire risk

Smoke from the fire on Tallinn's Suur-Sõjamäe tänav, March 24, 2023.
Smoke from the fire on Tallinn's Suur-Sõjamäe tänav, March 24, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The risk of fire at the waste treatment center on Tallinn's Suur-Sõjamäe tänav could have been reduced several times over if the state had given permission for the construction of a hazardous waste incinerator, said Epler & Lorenz board member Argo Luude. Luude added, that for the time being at least, it makes sense to rebuild the center, which caught fire on Tuesday.

"It is very, very sad that this kind of accident has occurred. I know that this center has been subject to constant inspections by the authorities and all kinds of auditors from our own company, which so far have found that the treatment processes comply with all the relevant legislation. So, what exactly happened there, I unfortunately do not know," said Argo Luude.

"As to how the fire started, we have no knowledge whatsoever. Based on the information we have today, it can be assumed that the entire center has burnt to the ground and nothing can be salvaged," he added.

According to Luude, the damage to the company is significant, however it is not yet clear what the precise financial costs will be. "You can imagine what it would be like if you had a working, functioning center and it burned to the ground. As always nowadays, you try to be as positive as you can in this difficult situation. Certainly, the idea is that once things get to that point I'd want to rebuild [the center] there, because the work needs to be done. This waste is not going to go anywhere, and it needs to be managed," Luude said.

Argo Luude is the board chair of AS Keskkonnkonnateenused, a subsidiary of Epler & Lorenz.

Luude added, that the fire had affected a hazardous waste management center, where various forms of hazardous waste were being stored. The center was involved in both the storage and sorting of the waste. Waste was received and sorted before being forwarded on to other treatment sites where it could be incinerated.

"The word 'hazardous' is not just there for the sake of it. It's a type of waste that poses a risk, in one way or another. The problem is that you can take all sorts of safety precautions, but a combination of unfortunate circumstances can still cause an accident to happen," said Luude.

ERR also asked Luude about the on-site surveillance and whether or not it would have been possible for just anyone to walk into the area where the treatment center was located. "No, definitely not," Luude replied.

"And, as I said, we don't know what the cause might have been. But, as far as I know, there were still some of our staff there [when it happened] and it was they who called the emergency services. It didn't happen during non-work hours," Luude said.

The operations center at Suur-Sõjamäe also included office space. There are no known casualties. "The Rescue Board has said there are none and so we hope and assume there are none. As far as we are aware, we have at least been able to contact all the employees who were supposed to be there [at that time]," Luude added

On-site incinerator would reduce risks many times over

According to Luude, the center had planned to install a hazardous waste incinerator on site. "The incinerator will burn the waste at 1,200 degrees Celsius and the flue gases will pass through a purification unit, which will remove all harmful chemicals and release emissions into the atmosphere at below the limit permitted," said Luude.

The installation of the incinerator was however, hampered by the cumbersome process of obtaining permits from the state, Luude said.

"The problem is, that in Estonia we are happy to issue permits to all kinds of industries and companies that generate different types of waste. But when a company wants to treat that waste, it is very complicated to get the permits. For this center, there were plans to develop it significantly and to bring in modern hazardous waste management systems there, which would have reduced the risk of this kind of accident occurring many, many times over. That process has been dragging on and is still ongoing. In other words, you cannot get the necessary permits, approvals or assessments. That process is measured in years. Yet at the same time, waste is still being generated," Luude said.

"So, the problem is that modern treatment centers cannot be built because the whole process is so slow and bureaucratic. And because of that, waste tends to pile up in warehouses," he added.

Luude went on to say, that if the Estonian state cannot give permits to waste treatment plants, then it should not give permits to the industries that generate the waste either.

"Otherwise, somebody is going to have that waste just sitting around in any case - either it's going to be at a treatment center somewhere or it's going to be somewhere in the warehouse where it's generated. However, the risk is always there, that somewhere the waste is in a warehouse and it could ignite should there be a combination of unfortunate circumstances," Luude said.

On Tuesday afternoon, a hazardous waste management center on Tallinn's Suur-Sõjamäe tänav caught fire. The blaze then spread to adjacent buildings, with smoke from the incident visible throughout the city. The Estonian Rescue Board (Päästeamet) were still working to extinguish the fire on Wednesday.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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