Finally – it works! – the best Christmas present for the Baltic Sea

For a veteran of the Baltic Sea like myself, the highlight of the week was this: the Kaliningrad city treatment plant is finally up and running! It no longer only passes through the wastewaters of 400,000 people, but now also treats them in line with HELCOM recommendations. A wait of more than 40 years is over, and the greatest disgrace of the Baltic Sea, the site where wastewaters flowed directly to the sea via an open ditch, has finally been fixed.

In case you are now wondering that you have probably heard this story many times before, and the maritime rescue team of Pasila is now just replaying the same old tune, you are, in a way, correct. The treatment plant of Kaliningrad has in fact been declared ready for its inauguration at least three times, and for the past five years, it has been ‘right on the brink of’ completion.  When we have heard the announcement that ‘the Kaliningrad treatment plant opens in August’, the next, and perfectly reasonable, question has been August, yes, but which year are we now talking about?

Disillusionment regarding Kaliningrad had crept into the minds of the most hardened optimists, such as yours truly. The delays have not been caused by lack of funds, as various sources – from the Russian Federation to the State of Sweden and the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership – have offered financing to the Kaliningrad plant for approximately 20 years. Over time, Kaliningrad has even been dubbed the Swedish Waterloo, an expression that should convey the level of frustration on the side of the financiers from our neighbouring country.

As Kaliningrad has for so long been one of the greatest individual point sources of the Baltic Sea, we at the Foundation went over in 2008, and agreed on cooperation for improving the efficiency of phosphorus removal at the Kaliningrad plant. At the time, it was decided that the Foundation will implement chemical phosphorus removal at the Kaliningrad plant ‘within a few years, when the plant has been built’.

Those few years have been a long time coming.  According to city leaders, the construction work was moving ahead just fine, but since nothing was happening with our joint project, we went to the site in January 2012 to check what “just fine” meant. Our hosts, the very very cooperative leaders of the city, had made sure the construction work was done by a company they knew well, but which only had experience of building bridges. This company, called Bridge Builder Number Six, had been working on the treatment plant, but the fact was they had not (surprise!) quite nailed it.

When, after our meeting with the management, we went to see what the situation at the plant was, the hardworking bridge builders were eager to present their blueprints and plans. When asked about chemical phosphorus removal, they could not say for certain if they were going to build such a thing or not. It was, however, located somewhere on the edges of the blueprints. After our visit to the plant, the friendly city representatives let us know that our help in phosphorus removal was now no longer required, as such a feature had, after our search, been identified in the engineers’ papers. Instead, they would be happy to receive funding from us and have us be in charge of the plant’s commissioning process, as there were slight problems in that area. This request, asking us to take care of the commissioning of a plant constructed by novices, along with all its legal ramifications, was sufficiently hair-raising from the Foundation’s point of view for us to just say politely thanks but no thanks.

Since January 2012, we have continued our cooperation with other cities in the Kaliningrad region while waiting for some happy tidings from the bridge builders. Invitations to opening ceremonies have been many during the years, with Putin and Medvedev announcing the year when all will be ready at least a few times, but nothing has ever come out of it. This probably proves that even the Kremlin cannot sort out the befuddlement created by the Kaliningrad bridge builders.  Like the old Russian saying goes: ‘we wanted the best, but it turned out as usual’.

Last spring we finally saw the year when the plant was opened, to the surprise of everyone who had followed the story. What turned out to be a crucial factor in blocking the single largest source of discharge to the Baltic Sea – a feat where even the Kremlin had failed – turned out to be the FIFA world cup, which galvanized the bridge builders for a final spurt. But Rome was not built in a day, and we still did not quite cross the finish line: due to problems with the centrifuges used in sludge removal, wastewater had until now been just run through the treatment plant, without being treated in any way.

Today, we finally see the long-awaited miracle of Baltic Sea protection, and wastewaters at the Kaliningrad plant are treated in line with HELCOM recommendations. The oxygen-depleted main basin of the Baltic Sea is grateful, as is our own marine area, the recipient of nutrients pushed forward by waters of the main basin. Rome has finally been built, and the Baltic Sea has received its best Christmas present ever.

Marjukka Porvari heads the Clean Baltic Sea projects of the John Nurminen Foundation. Marjukka joined the Foundation’s Baltic Sea protection operations at the very beginning in 2004, when the Foundation launched its first project at the St. Petersburg wastewater treatment plant.
Image from the Kaliningrad treatment plant: Marjukka Porvari