Project for Life

Peter Fagernäs
Peter Fagernäs

I have never saved a human life, but I can imagine that doing so is psychologically extremely rewarding. I have, however, experienced something similar through the work to save the Baltic Sea. I became involved in the project somewhat by accident, when Juha Nurminen was looking for more business management expertise in project planning.

As a title, ‘The Project of My Life’ would have been slightly pompous, but a ‘Project for Life’ accurately describes how I feel about our work to protect the Baltic Sea. We still have time but it is running out. In a way, we are an intensive care unit. First aid through nutrient removal is needed first, followed by long-term care and recovery, which may take one hundred years. We and our contemporaries are the first aid providers, but future generations will have their work cut out for them.

From ideas to action

I do not see myself as a card-carrying sea enthusiast, which makes me the odd one out at the John Nurminen Foundation. I do live by the coast of the Baltic Sea, in fact, only 200 metres from the shore, but my childhood was spent on the lakeside. I am more at home with rowing boats than sailing boats. But even lakeside-dwelling Finns cannot ignore the pollution of the sea. Going back to the 1990s, I clearly remember the substance, resembling pea soup, floating on top of the water as we went fishing in the Gulf of Finland in July.

All this made it easy for me to say yes to Juha’s request of joining in the planning of what could and what should be done to the marine environment.

Our starting point was very embryonic. ‘Something needs to be done’, which meant that we had to think about what the John Nurminen Foundation can do to help the Baltic Sea. Back in the day, my business tutor Jaakko Pöyry advised me that the will to do things always comes first. This was true in this case, too. We had the will, and had to come up with the way.

Something concrete

We felt that the protection of the Baltic Sea was rife with talk and research, but not much action. Our initial idea was to identify a concrete project. In 2004-2005, we interviewed a large number of researchers and experts. Their message was clear, and in the end, the solution was very simple. The sea cannot be saved unless its nutrient emissions are cut.

We quickly decided that our target should be St. Petersburg, which generated the greatest nutrient emissions to the Baltic Sea. We could see that with such huge potential, the input/output or the efficiency of the project could be maximised. Big results for small investments.

The Finnish Environment Institute SYKE calculated how the introduction of chemical phosphorus removal at the large wastewater treatment plants of St. Petersburg would impact the amounts of phosphorus entering the Gulf of Finland, and, consequently, the amounts of blue-green algae on a five-year time span.

In the discussions of the Board of Directors, the basic theses of our operations were finally formulated. They echoed business thinking: with little money, we needed to achieve the best possible results; the project had to be very concrete; have a significant impact; and be unambiguously measurable. We believed that our project, defined in this manner, would also be supported by the corporate world. This was absolutely necessary for us to be able to move forward.

Russians join in

We seemed, however, to be facing insurmountable problems. The project in St. Petersburg could not be implemented without the support of the local stakeholders. When we began our discussions with the city’s water utility Vodokanal, we met with suspicious attitudes towards phosphorus removal. Blue-green algae was also not considered to be a problem. Felix Karmazinov, our dear friend and Director General of the water utility, doubted the feasibility of the project for a long time, but was, in the end ?and to our gain ?converted to become a staunch supporter of the project. His personal input and the water utility’s willingness to co-operate were key factors in the success of the project.

Thus, phosphorus removal became a joint project of the city of St. Petersburg, its water utility, and the Foundation. Its total costs of approximately five million euros were covered half by money donated to the Foundation, and half by the funds of the St. Petersburg water utility. Project targets have included project planning, equipment procurement, and managing the project. Funds are never transferred directly to our water utility partners.

Enabled by infrastructure

The prerequisites for the project in St. Petersburg were, however, laid out by international financiers who had long been active in the area. The Finnish Ministry of the Environment began co-operating with Vodokanal already in 1991, and had participated in the project for improving wastewater treatment infrastructure. Only after the majority of St. Petersburg’s wastewaters had been directed to wastewater treatment plants, it became possible for the Foundation to start planning the construction of a permanent phosphorus removal system, and committing the utility to the continuous use of coagulation chemicals.

Catalyst of the network

No-one can save the Baltic Sea single-handedly. What, then, makes a tiny Foundation and its Clean Baltic Sea projects a significant stakeholder in the multifaceted area of environmental protection? This was our question already seven years ago, when we embarked on our journey. Now, after all these years, I would say these are the main contributing factors:

we decided to work with concrete, clearly defined targets. Our mission was credible, it could be sold to the corporate world, and it attracted other participants to join in. It is not possible to save the Baltic Sea alone. The Foundation took on the role of a kind of catalyst between various stakeholders, enabling it to accelerate project implementation across the borders that exist between different authorities and countries.

When we convene in St. Petersburg in late June, we need to remember two things: The phosphorus load entering the sea from the city of St. Petersburg is today 1,000 tonnes smaller than it was, and thanks are due to everyone involved.

June 2011
Peter Fagernäs
Member of the board