The fate of the Baltic Sea is decided at wastewater treatment plants – not in official speeches

Kirjoittaja Juha Nurminen on John Nurmisen Säätiön perustaja ja hallituksen puheenjohtaja
Juha Nurminen

In the battle against the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea, toilet wastes play a key role. Even though agriculture leads the pack as the largest contaminator of the Baltic Sea, the efficient treatment of community wastewaters is the fastest method we have to improve the status of the Baltic Sea. Eutrophicating nitrogen and phosphorus can be removed from wastewaters cheaply and quickly compared to the individual protection measures that are applied at thousands of farms, with uncertain impact. This is why we should do all we can in terms of toilet waste while we, simultaneously, continue our effort to curb the ever-increasing emissions from agriculture.

In 2007, all member states of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission HELCOM signed the Baltic Sea Action Plan in a festive ceremony in Krakow. The plan stipulated that phosphorus is removed from wastewaters in the sensitive Baltic area as efficiently as possible. Wastewater phosphorus removal required a separate HELCOM recommendation of its own, as EU regulations are too loosely defined to benefit the Baltic Sea. In terms of eutrophication of the Baltic Sea and, in particular, blue-green algae, phosphorus is the key nutrient.

The difference between the levels required by EU and the tighter removal regulations agreed in Krakow constitutes a question of life or death for the future of the Baltic Sea. In new EU Member States – Poland and the Baltic countries – it accounts for an annual reduction of 3,000 tonnes of phosphorus load. This equals one third of the phosphorus amount that, according to the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, still needs to be cut to reintroduce clear waters to the Baltic Sea.

The problem is that the cities are bound by law to the EU emission levels, whereas the Krakow agreement is only a beautiful promise. And everyone knows what happens to beautiful promises when the times get tough.
Since we operate everywhere in the Baltic Sea catchment area, including the new EU member states, our Foundation has a vantage point from which to oversee wastewater treatment in the Baltic Sea region. Unfortunately, word from the vantage point is that it is not looking good.

The economic crisis seems to have robbed many cities and water treatment plants of the will to implement the targets agreed in Krakow. With millions of euros of support from the EU, state-of-the-art water treatment plants have been built: they would easily allow us to adjust emissions levels so that the Baltic Sea would have a chance of survival. Instead, many wastewater treatment plants cling to minimal savings – equalling the price of a cup of coffee per each customer a year – and continue to generate the EU-level nutrient loads that the Baltic Sea cannot sustain.

HELCOM is frustratingly powerless in this matter. As a co-operative organisation of countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, it applies consensus decision-making and has no means of disciplining member countries that have backed up on their word. In the EU, people just shrug at the too loosely defined directive. The message is that you can always apply stricter criteria if you feel like it. But the problem is precisely that: not everyone seems to feel like doing it.

This is why EU needs stricter regional legislation. The wastewater standards that can be applied to the Atlantic or the Mediterranean simply do not cut it in the case of the Baltic Sea. Our closed, shallow and sensitive Baltic Sea needs stricter emission norms than larger seas, where wastewaters can be carelessly dumped without creating a massive blue-green algae problem. For norms to be adhered to, for better and for worse, they must be obligatory to all countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.

Finns are accustomed to seeing themselves as model students in wastewater treatment and the protection of the Baltic Sea. We seem, however, to have a beam in our eye. It is true we are busy removing phosphorus from wastewaters, but for nitrogen we have not yet achieved even the 70% minimum removal level set by the EU. The explanation you hear most often is ‘but our nitrogen has no impact on the Baltic Sea’. Unfortunately the explanation is unsound, since it is precisely nitrogen that regulates the eutrophication levels of the Archipelago Sea and the Gulf of Finland.

Therefore, we have good reason to remove nitrogen from wastewaters, particularly on the coastal areas. Even the Programme for the Protection of the Baltic Sea of the Finnish Government included this principle already in the early 2000s. Yet, Finland still has coastal cities, for example Loviisa and Hanko, that do not achieve a nitrogen removal level that is above 30%. Even the wastewaters of St. Petersburg are today treated better than those of many Finnish cities. Is there something wrong in our environmental permit system when a matter that has been agreed by the government cannot be implemented on the grassroots level?

While large wastewater treatment plants lag hopelessly behind in nitrogen removal, Finland has turned its gaze on the wastewaters of sparsely populated areas. We should question the cost-efficiency of an operation where a massive EUR 2 billion transfer of income is used to force the less than affluent population of the countryside to make investments from which the environment will scarcely benefit at all. Fearing building-specific systems, many municipalities are planning gigantic sewage lines that would direct wastewaters to poorly functioning small municipal wastewater treatment plants. Especially in areas where most buildings are summer cottages, a sewage system – replacing the traditional outhouse and water carried from the lake – would mock the very idea of sustainable development.

Official speeches are official speeches, but the fate of the Baltic Sea is decided at the treatment plants. The most significant single action all citizens can take to protect the Baltic Sea is to demand from municipal politicians that the wastewaters of the city they live in are treated as well as is possible – even if the extra cost adds up to a few cups of coffee a year.


Information of the previously unknown phosphorus emission from the Fosforit fertiliser factory in Kingisepp, Russia, to the Gulf of Finland, corresponding to as much as 1,000 annual tonnes, has shocked those working to protect the Baltic Sea. The emission will increase the phosphorus load that can be utilised by algae by 50% compared to the levels we were previously aware of.

But even the worst news has a positive side: the gigantic emission enters the River Luga mostly via a single ditch. Consequently, it can be controlled with relatively small investments of less than EUR 20 million.
It is undeniable and obvious already in the light of current measurement results that the emission is massive. This is why it is important that we take immediate measures to combat the emission together with EuroChem, the owner of the factory. If the will is there, this is an excellent opportunity for cost-efficient and fast emission reductions. Financing should not be a problem, since we are here dealing with a giant corporation with billions of euros in net sales.

In the summer of 2011, the John Nurminen Foundation and the St. Petersburg water utility celebrated the completion of the wastewater phosphorus removal system responsible for a reduction of 1,000 tonnes of phosphorus annually. After we have managed to cut the emissions from Fosforit by a similar amount, we can hope to see our own Gulf of Finland without the algae sludge we have witnessed every summer.

(The blog has been published on February 10, 2012 in Centrum Balticum’s weekly Message in a Bottle column series.)


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