John Nurminen Foundation’s new Fertilizer Shipping project seeks to find solutions to nutrient discharges from fertilizer transportation

A new, possibly very significant source of nutrient discharges has been identified in Baltic Sea protection: the marine transportation of fertilizers. The risk of nutrient discharges is linked to the loading and unloading of fertilizers at harbour, and cleaning the holds of ships that carry fertilizers in the open sea.

Problems related to fertilizer loading include airborne fertilizer particles, fertilizer ending up in the sea either during the loading phase or with the harbour’s runoff waters, and other practices where dust particles from fertilizers are airborne to the environment. International agreements allow ships to discharge cargo hold cleaning water that contains nutrients within 12 nautical miles of the shore, as the water does not contain any harmful substances.

The first phase of the Fertilizer Shipping project, launched today by the John Nurminen Foundation at the Helsinki International Boat Show, will survey the best techniques and practices to load fertilizers at harbour and to clean cargo holds, and also investigate the true extent of the problem. The next phase will promote measures that reduce discharges throughout the Baltic Sea area, working together with stakeholders such as harbours, harbour operators, fertilizer manufacturers, and cities.

In Finland, harbours are also subject to environmental permit procedures, obliging them to estimate the impact of their operations, and, consequently, providing a great opportunity to influence fertilizer handling practices. The project will also seek to have an impact on international legislation on waters used for cleaning cargo holds.

Opportunity to reduce nutrients significantly

The nutrient discharge risks caused by fertilizer transportation have been highlighted by the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission in 2018‒2019. According to even the most careful estimates of the organisation Coalition Clean Baltic, which is active in the Baltic Sea area, nutrient discharges from fertilizer transportation can amount to several tonnes annually.

According to a study by the association Kymijoen vesi ja ympäristö ry, in a single harbour, the annual nutrient discharges that enter the sea with runoff waters alone can amount to several tonnes of phosphorus and even hundreds of tonnes of nitrogen, equalling the annual wastewater treatment discharges of a large city. In addition to the runoff waters from the harbour grounds, nutrients end up in the sea directly as dust particles during loading, fertilizer falling directly to the water, and as a consequence of cargo hold cleaning in the open sea.

“Baltic Sea stakeholders have for years sought to end wastewater discharges from vessel traffic to the sea. The policies have been correct, but based on information that has now come to light, nutrient discharges from the harbours’ fertilizer terminals may, even according to careful estimates, be many times the volume of the discharges from vessel traffic”, explains Seppo Knuuttila, Senior Research Scientist at the SYKE Finnish Environment Institute.

A fictitious example clarifying the scope of the project. The cargo of a freight vessel consists of 5,000 tonnes of fertilizer. This cargo of combination fertilizer contains 5% of phosphorus.  The spoilage accepted by transportation contracts and created mostly in the various phases of loading the cargo is 0.5%. This calculation assumes that the spillage would be no more than one tenth of the accepted level. This would mean that 2.5 tonnes of fertilizer, containing 125 kg of phosphorus, end up in the sea. Once in the sea, this is enough phosphorus to generate 125 tonnes of algae. Illustration: Anne Haapanen

“Being responsible and environmentally friendly are marine traffic megatrends all over the world, and Finnish shipping companies are the forerunners of these trends. The marine traffic sector has for quite some time now made great effort to advance corporate responsibility, and many solutions that have been developed in Finland could well be adopted elsewhere. In Finland, corporate responsibility is seen as an operational approach and a competitive advantage. Even though Finnish merchant vessels carry only about 5% of the total fertilizer transports of Finland, we want to join in the effort, developing best practices that reduce nutrient discharges from fertilizer transportation. The Fertilizer Shipping project, launched by the John Nurminen Foundation, is an excellent example of operations where through cooperation and the implementation of best practices we can achieve a significant positive environmental impact’, says Tiina Tuurnala, CEO of the Finnish Shipowners’ Association.

Cooperation also with Russian fertilizer manufacturers

The Fertilizer Shipping project will cover all of Finland and the Gulf of Finland, the entire Baltic Sea area, and, in particular, those fertilizer transit harbours where Russian stakeholders play an important role. Finland and Russia are the only countries of the Baltic Sea area with their own phosphorus reserves. The Russian companies are global scale fertilizer manufacturers, and their significance to the fertilizer transportation taking place in the Baltic Sea is great. Thanks to its earlier projects, the Foundation is very experienced in operating in Russia, and has good contacts to the key Russian stakeholders in the field.

Extensive cooperation, both in Finland and abroad, is a prerequisite for the success of the project. Kirsti Tarnanen-Sariola, Deputy Director of the Finnish Port Association, encourages cooperation: ”Fertilizer spoilage is a typical challenge where we need cooperation between the various stakeholders.” Juha Mutru, Managing Director of the Finnish Port Operators Association, continues: Port operators and cargo owners are aware of current practices, and this is why they are the very people with whom we should be discussing the solutions we need. In Finland, we can already find operators with practices and techniques that take the marine environment well into consideration.”

Measured by the volume of fertilizer transports, Uusikaupunki is the 13th largest port in the Baltic Sea. There is a deep-water harbour in the vicinity of Yara’s Uusikaupunki factories, visited by 350 vessels annually, where 1.7 million tonnes of products and raw materials are processed each year. The factory produces approximately 1.3 million tonnes of fertilizer per year, 85% of which is exported via the harbour, with 65% remaining in the Baltic Sea area.

“In Yara’s Uusikaupunki harbour, we have focused on making the discharges that occur during the loading and unloading of ships as small as possible.  It is a question of simple practices that can prevent the spread of dust particles and nutrients entering the water; such practices include covered conveyor tunnels, and the proper recovery and further handling of waters used in washing the ships. We are delighted to be able to share our own good practices, and, at the same time, to learn from other stakeholders”, says Teija Kankaanpää, Plant Manager at Yara.

Annamari Arrakoski-Engardt, Secretary General of the John Nurminen Foundation, sees the Fertilizer Shipping project as a great next step in the Foundation’s cooperation project continuum: we have 15 years of experience from international environmental projects, enabling us to build a strong network and knowhow of the environmental impacts of seafaring. We decided to launch this cooperation project because we see it as an opportunity to reach significant reductions in the nutrient loads that enter the Baltic Sea with targeted and cost-efficient measures, and also to share Finnish knowhow and practices in the Baltic Sea area.”

“We have cooperated with the fertilizer industry also in our past projects, for example in the Luga River in Russia. I believe that the same solution-driven attitude and our good cooperation with the stakeholders in the field will also this time bring significant environmental advantages to the Baltic Sea”, says Marjukka Porvari, Director in charge of the John Nurminen Foundation’s Clean Baltic Sea projects.

The John Nurminen Foundation has launched nearly 40 Clean Baltic Sea projects, of which 25 were completed by the end of 2019. In only 10 years, projects implemented with targeted measures in St. Petersburg and Kingisepp have resulted in a 75% reduction in the eutrophication-inducing phosphorus load of the Gulf of Finland alone; the Foundation had a key role in both of these projects. In order to reduce discharges from agriculture, the Foundation promotes e.g. the gypsum treatment of fields in the River Vantaa gypsum project, and in the gypsum projects in the Baltic Sea area. The Foundation has also launched two fish stock management projects in the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, the Foundation is in the lead of the EU-funded SEABASED project, where opportunities to reduce the internal nutrient load of the Baltic Sea are piloted. The Foundation is a partner in the EU-funded BEST project, led by the City of Helsinki, which seeks to find best practices for treating industrial wastewaters at municipal wastewater treatment plants. In January, the Foundation received EU funding for the three-year Sustainable Biogas project.

More information

Marjukka Porvari
Director, Clean Baltic Sea projects
Tel. +358 41 5491 535

Anna Saarentaus
Project Manager, Clean Baltic Sea projects
Tel.  +358 40 719 0208

John Nurminen Foundation – Baltic Sea protection and marine culture
Founded in 1992, the purpose of the John Nurminen Foundation is to save the Baltic Sea and its heritage for future generations. The Foundation has been awarded for its work as a communicator of information and producer of marine content. The goal of the Foundation’s Clean Baltic Sea projects is to improve the condition of the Baltic Sea with tangible measures that will reduce the load and environmental risks directed towards the sea. The work is steered by measurable results and impact. www.johnnurmisensaatio.fi