Political fallout from oil spill expected as opposition vents public indignation

  • 2006-02-08
  • Staff and wire reports
TALLINN - The consequences of the recent oil-spill, which has killed thousands of birds and blackened Estonia's northwestern coast, are proving more serious than originally expected and have led officials to declare it the country's worst environmental disaster.

Since the spill, whose origin remains a mystery, was reported on Feb. 28, as many as 35,000 birds have been killed, two ministers' jobs have been put on the line and investigators are scrambling to find the cause.

The government, in the meantime, is being castigated for incompetence in handling the mess. Opposition party leaders sent an address to Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on Feb. 6, urging him, once again, to dismiss Interior Minister Kalle Laanet and Environment Minister Villu Reiljan.

"Instead of solving the problem, different government agencies and ministries have started to mislead the public and shift the blame to others. As a result the situation has further deteriorated," the opposition said.

If the PM did not act, the parties warned they would take matters into their own hands and organize a vote of no-confidence.

"If you, as head of the government, do not find it possible to take respective steps, we will be compelled to consider a vote of no-confidence in Parliament," said the address, which was signed by Pro Patria Union Chairman Tonis Lukas, Res Publica Chairman Taavi Veskimagi and leader of the Social Democratic Party, Ivari Padar.

But the investigation into the exact origin of the spill continues. On Feb. 6, the North Regional Prosecutor's Office reported that the list of suspect-ships was less than 20, including the Liberian-flagged tanker Flawless.

"The aim of the investigators is to reduce the number of suspected ships to about five, so it would be simpler to take the necessary samples from them," Rudi told the Baltic News Service.

On Jan. 25, Flawless crewmembers informed the Border Guard of an oil-pumping accident that had occurred a few days earlier. While re-pumping the tank's oil, they reported, 1.5 cubic meters of fuel oil was spilled on deck.

According to official information, the incident took place 50 kilometers from where the slick was detected. The Liberian-flagged tanker is currently en route from Estonia's Muuga port to Singapore.

Ornithologist Vilju Lilleleht said the spill could have killed more than 35,000 birds. Only one in 10, in some cases one in 100, birds reach the shore, said Lilleleht, who is senior researcher at the Institute of Zoology and Botany of the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

He added that, in Estonia's case, ice prevented the dead birds from being washed to shore, although he said he is certain the exact number of birds killed is 10 times as many as those recovered.

The news provided the opposition with more incentive to demand ministerial resignations. Pro Patria Union spokesman Margus Tsahkna told the Baltic News Service that, if the prime minister is unable to meet the opposition's request, Parliament rules allow him to make a political statement.

"First we want clarity," said Tsahkna, adding that likely no-confidence candidates were Laanet and Reiljan from the People's Union though one against Reformist Ansip was not ruled out.

In response, Ansip said that every decision had its consequences, and every decision maker must be responsible for wrong choices and indecisiveness.

"It is important to find out who failed to adequately assess the relevant information," Ansip said. "Persons who have not done this must take the responsibility."

Interior Minister Laanet has already begun discussing plans to prevent future disasters. During a meeting with his Finnish colleague on Feb. 6, he said that, in cooperation with the Finnish Border Guard, which performs two weekly monitoring flights, it was possible to bring the total flight number up to five.

The ministers also discussed cooperation opportunities to cover financial investments. The need for financing this year is nearly 60 million kroons (3.83 mln euros).

Estonia must improve cooperation with Finland and Sweden in order to get the most out of its monitoring information, Laanet and Reiljan said. This is particularly important in a situation where Estonia does not yet have sufficient capability.

The two ministers also assured the public that, in order to raise its oil-spill readiness, Estonia would increase its frequency of patrol flights from one to three times a week. They said it was imperative to acquire pollution-monitoring equipment meeting international requirements.

Documentation for the appropriate procurement tender will be prepared by the Border Guard Board, a spokesman for the Environmental Ministry reported.

The ministers said they would need some 60 million kroons (3.8 million euros) to finance the new equipment.

On Jan. 28, the Environmental Inspectorate received information of an oil slick and began criminal procedures the same day. A few days later, the Central Criminal Police took over the case and is currently working in close cooperation with environmental and border guard officials.

Prime Minister Ansip said on Feb. 7 that he would answer the three opposition parties in writing since, because of his timetable, he would be unable to comply with their wish and give an oral answer during Parliament's information hour on Feb. 8.