Finland 1 European Commission 0 - but what about the Baltic Sea?

Friday, 20. November 2009     0 comment(s)
Mia Pihlajamäki
Researcher – PROBALT project
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme

Last October, the Court of Justice dismissed the Commission’s request to declare that “by not requiring more stringent treatment of all waste water collected in agglomerations more than 10 000 population equivalent, the Republic of Finland has failed to fulfil its obligations” (Case-335/ 07). In practice, this means that Finland is not obliged to increase its nitrogen removal efficiency in the larger urban waste water treatment plants (WWTPs in charge of over 10 000 inhabitants) from an average of 55% to 70%.

The defendant won the case because it presented evidence that the lakes and rivers are able to retain 19 to 82% of the nitrogen from the inland waste water discharges before they reach the sea and therefore it is not necessary nor justified to increase the efficiency in all of the treatment plants. The Commission failed to prove otherwise. The defendant also informed the Court that all the Finnish treatment plants must obtain an environmental permit, which is formulated according to the local situation (i.e. the effects of nitrogen input from a particular WWTP to the inland waters and the Baltic Sea). This means that the local environmental centres assess the need for increased efficiency case by case.

However, a study published by the Finnish Environment Institute in 2008 (Suomen Ympäristö 46/ 2008) clearly shows that we have many WWTPs on our coasts with extremely low nitrogen removal efficiency. To give an example, in Salo, a municipality located west of Helsinki on the coast of the Gulf of Finland with circa 55 000 inhabitants, the nitrogen removal efficiency in 2005 was only 8%. Salo had the second lowest removal efficiency out of all the municipalities considered, but it is definitely not alone. In Pori the efficiency was 27 % whereas Kotka and Pietarsaari made it just above 30%. 

This is surprising indeed. One might have thought that the Finnish urban waste water treatment is a fine example to the other riparian countries, but in fact, the nitrogen removal efficiency in many of the coastal municipalities is still very low. To put it the other way around, there is in fact only one larger coastal WWTP that removes over 80 % of the nitrogen and it’s located in Helsinki. So yes, Finland won, but what about the Baltic Sea?

In order to combat eutrophication, the reductions of phosphorus and nitrogen input to the sea are necessary. As a result, Finland has committed to the reduction targets of the HELCOM’s Baltic Sea Action Plan, which are equivalent of 150 tonnes of phosphorus and 1200 tonnes of nitrogen for Finland alone. Antti Iho and Markku Ollikainen pointed out in Helsingin Sanomat on November 14th that increasing the nitrogen removal efficiency to 70% in Finland would actually decrease our national nitrogen input by over 2000 tonnes. This implies that increasing the removal efficiency in the treatment plants alone would be a sufficient measure to reach the set target, and therefore their potential should not be ignored in the discussions on how to reduce the nutrient inputs from Finland.  

So yes, Finland won, but we are the ones still polluting our own coastline and we are the ones who can do something about it. But how should we do it?

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