An ambitious project to build a 750-mile long gas pipeline beneath the Baltic Sea has run into trouble after Sweden's Prime Minister warned that the project could trigger an ecological tragedy.
The Baltic Sea is in effect a cemetery for discarded chemical weapons and Goran Persson argued that it would be foolhardy to lay a pipeline in such an area. His comments have been echoed by worried environmentalists.
But the £3.4bn pipeline project, a joint venture between Russia's Gazprom and Germany's BASF and E.ON, shows little sign of being put on hold. Onshore construction of the so-called North European Gas Pipeline (NEPG) has already begun in Russia and the first gas is due to be transported in 2010.
The scheme has the approval of President Vladimir Putin and the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now chairman of the consortium's shareholders' committee. Russia says the project is vital for Europe's future energy needs. The pipeline is expected to carry billions of cubic metres of Siberian gas to Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
But Mr Persson said that construction would stir up a deadly cocktail of chemicals and spread them over a much larger area. "When you build such a large pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, you stir up a lot of sediment at the bottom, where there are mines, poisons and other things that have been dumped over decades," he said. "You risk setting off a major environmental disturbance on top of all the other environmental problems the Baltic Sea has." He wants the consortium building the NEGP to consider putting most of the pipeline on land instead.
A spokeswoman for the Swedish government, Anna Helsen, said yesterday that negotiations with the NEGP consortium concerning a full environmental impact assessment had not yet begun but that the matter was already being actively discussed by working groups.
She said Mr Persson was concerned that the sea off the Swedish island of Gotland (56 miles from the mainland) would be destroyed and that the pipeline would not be good for the environment.
Ivan Blokov of Greenpeace Russia said that the Soviet Union had dumped tens of thousands of tons of German Second World War chemical weapons and ammunition in the area in the late 1940s. "Some of the chemical weapons were dumped in the hulls of sunken ships and we know where they are," he said. "But others were just thrown off the sides of ships. There could be 60,000 tons of chemical weapons down there." Mr Blokov said that the location of more than one million "units" of Soviet chemical weapons were unknown and could be in the Baltic Sea.
Irina Vassilieva, a spokeswoman for the pipeline consortium, played down fears of a disaster. She said careful research had been carried out and that the environment would actually benefit since the seabed would be cleaned before construction began.
"We have worked this route out over several years and it is the optimal one. The route did not come close to known ammunition dumps," she said. "We are certainly determined to observe all ecological, maritime and legal requirements during planning, construction and operation."
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