Digest: Tartu's pulp mill debate already part of 2019 election campaign ({{commentsTotal}})

Andrus Karnau and Ahto Lobjakas.
Andrus Karnau and Ahto Lobjakas. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

With both local government and interest groups excluded from the planning process, if and where Est-For's announced billion-euro pulp mill will be built is up to just the government and the people with the money. Meanwhile, the process is turning into a farce, and already being abused for political campaigning, commentators Ahto Lobjakas and Andrus Karnau agree.

Lobjakas and Karnau discussed recent developments regarding the Est-For pulp mill project on their radio show on Sunday (link in Estonian). While Lobjakas thinks the government's behavior in the matter has been outright feeble, Karnau sees evidence of political campaigning on the part of the Tartu Reform Party under mayor Urmas Klaas.

The government has lost control of the planning process for the pulp mill, Lobjakas argued. Where at first it rushed the proceedings concerning the proposed billion-euro investment in Central or South Estonia, it has now made it to a point where a constructive debate about the project seems entirely impossible.

In January 2017, forestry supergroup EstFor introduced a project calling for a new pulp mill which, at an investment volume of over €1 billion, would be the biggest private project of the kind in Estonian history.

Though no specifics were offered regarding the mill's eventual products as well as its requirements in terms of raw material volumes, or which technology it would eventually apply in its production process, the government bent over backwards to accommodate the idea and had a special planning decision ready no later than five months after EstFor went public with its idea.

"In it, [the government] said exactly what [business man and investor Margus Kohava] and his business partners had advertised, namely that the pulp mill will be built with exactly the volume and in the area where EstFor want it," Lobjakas said. "What the government didn't deal with in those five months is all the rest of the work that's necessary in the case of such a sensitive project in a country like Estonia," he added.

That the city of Tartu would reject the project in its current form had to be expected. "It would all have played out quite differently if the state had put in place norms for environmental protection, and done so clearly, publicly, and transparently," Lobjakas said. "These norms could then have been the subject of a debate, and if after such a debate the project still has a chance, then by all means, go ahead," he added.

Karnau: Issue becoming political opportunity for Reform Party

Andrus Karnau pointed out that the government's hapless conduct in the matter played into the hands of the opposition. All Tartu mayor Urmas Klaas (Reform) needed to do was to be carefully opposed to the project, and this would already boost his party's approval, Karnau suggested.

This sort of tactic is by no means new, as in his time Prime Minister Andrus Ansip (Reform) used a similar approach on several occasions, he added. Klaas' opposition in the matter is of the "comfortable" kind, Karnau pointed out, as in fact the city of Tartu doesn't play a direct role in the process of the special planning decision issued by the state.

Should EstFor's investors want to build the mill in that area, and should the state find that the environmental impact is manageable, it would happen anyway, and in such a case the city of Tartu would profit from its presence anyway, Karnau said.

"But with his little mock fight, Urmas Klaas can show his voters that he stands for Tartu as this cute little town of wooden houses where there's no industry, and no economic development," he added.

Karnau also pointed to a flaw in the planning process: at no point does it call for the inclusion of local governments or other interest groups. Except for the state and the initiators of a project, nobody has a say about whether or not such a massive factory is built, and where.

"If you consider this, the Tartu city council's desperate behavior [in its marathon session last week] is entirely justified. It was necessary to clearly state that we want to have a say in this as well, and we want more rights to control this process," Karnau said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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