Bridge falters over troubled waters: Fears of an ecological disaster ground plans for a 10-mile road link between Sweden and Denmark

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THE MAYOR of Malmo, Joakim Ollen, is waxing lyrical about the benefits to his small city expected from the long-awaited bridge from Scandinavia to continental Europe.

'This link will create a dynamic new region of Malmo and Copenhagen,' he said, bringing together cities separated by three centuries of politics. 'We in Malmo have gained very little from the fact that the Swedes drove the Danes out in 1658.'

It is only about 10 miles across the Oresund Sound from Malmo (pop 235,000) to Copenhagen (pop 1.3 million). But politics, of the 20th-century kind, still makes this a treacherous stretch of water.

Two years ago, Sweden signed a binding agreement with Denmark to build a pounds 1.7bn motorway and rail link, including a tunnel, a causeway, two artifical islands and a five-mile bridge. Sweden came to the verge last week of approving the final plans, but shied away under pressure from environmentalists and a key member of its coalition government .

Enthusiasts for what will be the longest bridge in Europe, most members of the Swedish and Danish governments among them, claim that it will transform Zealand and southern Sweden, by cutting the travel time between city centres by car from the ferry's present 90 minutes to just 20 minutes.

The bridge will also give Malmo direct access to northern Europe's largest airport in Copenhagen, ending a constant complaint from business executives on the Swedish side of the strait.

The downside of the plan is the effect it may have on the fragile ecosystems of the Oresund and the Baltic. Economists also believe that it will cost far more to build than the projected figure, and that taxpayers in both countries will be picking up the tab for many years to come.

The bridge has taken on a symbolic importance for Swedes, many of whom are as doubtful about the physical link to the Continent as the proposed political link through membership of the European Union. Now the decision has been delayed once again, supporters fear that the project will become enmeshed in the debate on the EU or become an issue in September's general election.

Sweden has handed the decision to its powerful Water Tribunal, which will determine whether the project would, as some ecologists claim, starve the Baltic of salt-water currents from the North Sea.

The planned road and rail link slices through a wildlife and coastal area of international importance near the low-lying island of Saltholm.

Although the area is protected by two EU directives, Brussels has sided with the bridge-builders, because the link to Scandinavia is part of the plan of the Commission President, Jacques Delors, for a Europe-wide transport network. (The EU is also subsidising part of the Danish operation.)

To add to the difficulties of the Swedish and Danish governments, a majority of people in both countries consider the bridge to be an unnecessary extravagance. Virtually all favour some sort of fixed link between the two countries, but would prefer a Channel tunnel-style solution joining the cities by high-speed train - an option that is not even being debated. There is also the fact that those who cross to Copenhagen by car may find nowhere to park in the already crammed city.

The only people who seem to favour the bridge appear to be politicians and the business community.

Hans Peder Myrup, professor of public economics at Arhus University, cites its large number of bridge designers as one reason why Denmark opposes a tunnel. He was a member of a government-sponsored commission, which concluded that a high-speed underground rail link was the most economic solution.

On the Swedish side, the car and truck manufacturer, Volvo, is cited as a motive force for a motorway link between Scandinavia and the heart of Europe. Construction interests in Malmo eagerly anticipate large orders for reinforcing steel for the concrete span. Environmental worries about the bridge took the coalition government in Stockholm to the brink of collapse last week when the Centre Party, which has strong agrarian roots and Green credentials, threatened to pull out if approval was granted. That would have upset the Swedish negotiations to join the EU, which must be concluded by 1 March in order to organise a referendum.

Some of the largest colonies of waterfowl in Europe are to be found in the shallow waters around Saltholm island, including an eider duck colony of more than 15,000 adult birds and 10,000 herring gull nests. Saltholm is vital for migrating birds, including mute swans, mergansers and geese; and it is home to five species that are dangerously threatened, including the avocet, the ruff and the arctic tern.

Excavation and dredging of the limestone floor of the strait to build the bridge and artificial islands could wipe out most of the eider duck and swan colonies, bird lobbyists claim. The state-backed construction companies predict that the birds will return in time, but ornithologists dispute that. They also fear that the artificial island being built close to Saltholm will provide a route for rats and foxes to invade the bird sanctuary.

More crucial, the bridge will create a bottleneck at the already narrow and shallow entrance to the Baltic Sea. The health of the Baltic depends on North Sea currents passing through Oresund with oxygen-rich seawater. As it is, the salt water enters the Baltic only under certain climatic conditions.

The fear is that any impediment could reduce the salinity of the Baltic over several decades. Always on a knife edge, the survival of fish that depend on salt water, such as cod and herring, could be undermined, and that would have a devastating effect on the fishing industries of the Baltic's littoral states, which include Finland and Russia, Latvia and Estonia.

Then there is the airborne pollution that will be created by the motorway traffic - around 10,000 cars a day - and the issue of Denmark and Sweden's solemn commitments at the Rio Earth Summit two years ago to reduce their consumption of fossil fuel, and thereby slow global warming.

The construction consortium is confident it can create a 'zero solution' bridge, by which it means one that will cross the Oresund without affecting the water flow to the Baltic. But environmentalists, such as Bo Leth-Espensen of the Danish Nature Conservancy, say that can be achieved only at the cost of the protected bird and marine life in the sound. 'With a bridge, there is no choice but to damage either the Baltic or the birds in the Oresund environment.'

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