TALLINN - Legend has it that when the witches of Tuhala bathe underground, they bring alive the Witch’s Well, a spring which erupts erratically sending thousands of liters of water spewing into the surrounding marshland, reports AFP. It is one of Estonia’s best-loved tourist attractions, but now the site has become the focus of a dispute between nature lovers and mining companies.
Tens of thousands of Estonians have protested plans for open-pit limestone mining, asking the government to reject a development they claim would wreck the Tuhala marshland. “Mining would destroy one of the most unique nature attractions in northern Europe - the Tuhala Witch Well,” says Ants Talioja, head of the Tuhala Nature Center and the man behind a mass petition against mining plans.
“The mining would leave 16 villages without well-water and would fill local attractions - like caves unseen elsewhere in Estonia - with water,” he added, saying that rare orchids in the region would also be under threat.
The Witch’s Well of Tuhala usually erupts in the spring when snow melts, or when heavy rains drench the earth. The phenomenon happens a few times a year and lasts from a day to three weeks. Geologists believe it is linked to an extensive network of subterranean rivers spanning the region, creating dangerous sink-holes. As soon as it begins to churn out copious amounts of water, Estonians and visitors from abroad descend upon the site, located 40 kilometers from Tallinn.
An Internet petition against the planned mine posted on the site (www.tuhalanoiakaevuleappi.com/en/) has attracted more than 57,000 signatures - a significant number in Estonia, a Baltic country of 1.3 million. “I feel like I have a small army of nature activists behind me,” Talioja said of the response.
Protesters want the area, which is state property, to be transformed into a nature reserve, banning any future mining activity. Estonia’s Academy of Sciences has also called for a thorough study of the environmental impact of the planned limestone quarry on the site.
But mine proponents - four companies have asked authorities for permission to set up open-pit limestone mines on the land - say the protesters are over-reacting. “I think those who make a lot of noise about it over-estimate the danger,” said Boris Oks, deputy director of the Paekivitoode Tehas limestone factory behind the open-pit project. Estonia would be forced to import limestone from Finland and Sweden in the coming decade should the new limestone quarry not be dug, he said.
The companies involved insist future mining on the land is inevitable if Estonia wishes to continue to use local limestone to repair and build roads. Oks’ company has asked Estonia’s environmental ministry to make a joint environmental impact study and wants permission for mining to start while the study is ongoing “so the possible impact of mining will be screened better.”
However, “The position of the ministry and Minister Jaanus Tamkivi is firm - mines will not be allowed before it’s clear they will not damage nature,” Hanno Zingel, nature protection expert at the environment ministry, proclaimed.
While the environment ministry says it is being cautious, protesters claim the government is already counting on the limestone from the planned mine. “The government is currently compiling the development plan of construction materials for 2010-2020, and the plan to include these mines in that document has not yet been dropped,” Talioja said.