• 2006-02-15
The headlines are as black and ugly as the events themselves. On Feb. 13, an oil spill from a Chevron asphalt refinery in the New York Harbor blotted an area nearby Staten Island. Two weeks earlier, a tanker carrying phosphoric acid sank in the English Channel after colliding with a cargo vessel. Prior to that, a French fishing trawler sank after it rammed into a cargo ship in the same area of the channel. Five crewmembers died. Closer to home in the Baltic Sea, a 35 kilometer long oil slick, origin yet unknown, drifted onto Estonia's northeastern shore on Jan. 27, killing at least 3,500 birds and mucking up miles of sandy beaches.

It is being described as the worst oil spill in Estonian history, and experts say that the worst effects could possibly come later. Sub-zero weather has covered the oil spill with a layer of ice, impeding the clean-up effort and creating a kind of "time bomb" so that when the ice eventually melts, the remaining oil will warm up and spread out, sucking in more wildlife.

Opposition politicians in Estonia's parliament are demanding resignations, particularly from Environment Minister Villu Reiljan, who also heads the People's Union. They are accusing him of shoddy emergency management, though there seems to be little evidence to suggest this is the case. International rescuers taking part in the clean-up operation have commended their Estonian colleagues for their timely efforts to battle the mysterious spill.

Leave it to politicians to "oil the waters" and miss the point. There is an increasing number of accidents taking place in narrow shipping lanes due to growing maritime traffic. The amount of oil being shipped through the Gulf of Finland has tripled in less than 10 years, according to the Finnish government. Much of this comes from the new oil terminal in Primorsk, Russia, that opened in 2001, but considering that Moscow has plans to both increase capacity at Primorsk and build new oil and coal terminals on the gulf, the area is only going to become more crowded. Add to that the eventuality of the Ventspils pipeline coming back online 's accounting for another 20 million tons of crude annually 's and one can see how in a few years a satellite photo of the Baltic Sea will resemble one big amoebic tanker.

The Helsinki Commission has already claimed that the area is "among the most crowded shipping regions in the world." More and more tankers are sailing the rough waters of the Baltic Sea, navigating numerous islands and clogging up the ultra-narrow Oresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. It would seem only a matter of time before an enormous catastrophe occurs. Given the quantities of oil at stake, even the storks perched on top of telephone poles are at risk.

Hopefully the recent mess will spur politicians to action. Estonia's Interior Minister is reportedly prepared to spend some 50 million euros on oil detection equipment and vessels. This is money worth spending. Indeed, instead on worrying about how to renationalize the railroad, Estonian leaders should focus on the nation's environmental health. As the recent spill showed, it is a time-bomb in the making.