Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson (Center) has said that while she understands the criticism leveled at her by Hiiumaa residents over recurring issues with ferry services connecting the Western Estonian island to the mainland, her predecessor Kristen Michal is actually to blame, as it was his decision that the Rukki Channel be trawled rather than dredged.
Simson was also backed by Center Party chairman and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, who said that Simson had resolutely addressed the problem and noted that she was the one who stood for earmarking money in this year's state budget for the dredging of the channel.
"The concerns and reproaches of Hiiuma residents over the connection between the island and the mainland are understandable, and it is natural that residents of the island expect problem-free ferry services," Simson said in a press release. "The roots of today's problems, however, lie not in mistakes made today but in incorrect decisions made several years ago. Specifically, Reform Party member Peep Lillemägi, who initiated the petition, should address his demands to former Minister of Economic Effairs Kristen Michal, who in 2016 decided to perform trawling in the Rukki channel and forfeited the usual dredging. The trawling performed in October 2016, by which a depth of at least 5.2 meters was achieved, did not produce a lasting result, and the depth achieved then has not been maintained as currents keep bringing sediments into the channel."
The Estonian Maritime Administration is working to solve the problem, and dredging has been scheduled for this August and September. In addition, the government is planning to perform dredging on a regular basis at two- or three-year intervals in the future, according to the minister.
"The current government is making serious efforts to solve the problem, and alternative transport solutions have been found for the period prior to the dredging," Simson said. "Let me recall that as soon as the problem arose, the government took action to alleviate the situation of Hiiumaa residents: departures were added on the Tallinn-Kärdla air service and the Saaremaa-Hiiumaa ferry link." She also noted that ferries were also operated on a temporary Heltermaa-Virtsu-Heltermaa route, utilizing the mainland port that typically serves the mainland-Saaremaa connection.
Ratas: Simson has done her job
Commenting on a call by a group of Hiiumaa residents for Simson to resign, Ratas pointed out that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications has promptly responded to the problem and found flexible solutions in cooperation with various partners.
"Contrary to political accusations, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson stands for better and more stable ferry services for Hiiumaa residents," Ratas said in a press release on Saturday. "By her initiative, the necessary amount of money has been earmarked in the 2018 state budget for dredging in the Rukki Channel, and there is a plan to perform necessary works regularly after every two or three years in the future. Dredging will be performed in the Rukki Channel in the later half of this year already to achieve a depth of at least 5.2 meters in accordance with the new measurement system, as we used to have three years ago."
A group of Hiiumaa residents began collecting signatures for a petition demanding Simson's resignation over the failure of the government to perform emergency dredging in the Rukki Channel, where the situation first became critical three months ago.
"This morning, the shipping company announced that those who managed to get to Hiiumaa in time for the holidays should leave early, as water levels will drop again tomorrow," the group said in a statement to the media over the weekend. "We find that Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Kadri Simson, who in the course of three months has been ignoring appeals by Hiiumaa municipal leaders over the critical situation in ferry services, is not suited for her job."
On Thursday evening, the ferry operator announced that ferries on the mainland-Hiiumaa route would depart partially loaded as long as low water levels persisted and warned that the sea level on Sunday may once again drop to a level where the ferry service must be temporarily discontinued.
Ferry service hampered on Sunday
Although ferry service remained unaffected on Saturday, sea levels on Sunday once again dropped to the point that capacity limits had to be reintroduced on departures on the Rohuküla-Heltermaa route.
Priority access typically ensured by the purchase of e-tickets has been suspended on all departures; vehicles will be loaded onto the ferries on a first come, first serve basis.
Transaviabaltika, the operator of subsidized air services to Hiiumaa, announced that it would add an additional flight in each direction on the Tallinn-Kärdla-Tallinn route on Sunday on orders from the Estonian Road Administration. The additional flights will depart from Tallinn at 3 p.m. and Kärdla, the island's capital, at 3:45 p.m.
Editor: Aili Vahtla
Source: BNS, ERR