Part of illustration: Karin Sunvisson

Features Wastewater treatment plant in St. Petersburg: Progress, but not enough

A new treatment plant in St. Petersburg could eventually be built, despite initial resistance. It is the outcome of a successful joint project, funded by the Nordic Council and the EU. St. Petersburg's water consumption has also decreased significantly. A challenge remains for St. Petersburg; getting neighboring cities to clean their drains. Not many mil away waste flows directly into the Baltic Sea.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2:2013, p 20-22
Published on on November 7, 2013

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Life used to be simple for the people of Leningrad. Water came out of the tap, hot and abundant — and it was free. It drained out of the bathtubs and the sinks and disappeared into the Gulf — and it didn’t cost anything either. Per-capita water consumption in Leningrad was twice that of the neighboring country of Sweden. At the time, Finland was watching the innermost bubble of contaminated water in the Gulf of Finland expand, with increasing alarm. The Finns had a considerably greater understanding of how eutrophic wastewater was impacting water quality in the Baltic Sea.

Things started to move after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992. Outside Leningrad and the Soviet Union, the coastal nations surrounding the Baltic had drafted and adopted the Helsinki Convention on the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea, under the leadership of HELCOM. At the 1990 summit in Ronneby, the parties resolved that the pace of the work should be increased and drafted the Baltic Comprehensive Environmental Action Program. That was in 1992, the same year Russia rose again from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

The goal was not yet attained; the program had to be approved by all parties. In addition, there were now more coastal nations that had to ratify the agreement. By 1994, the EU, Germany, Latvia, and Sweden had signed on. They were joined the next year by Finland and Estonia, followed by Denmark in 1996, Lithuania in 1997, and finally, in November of 1999, Poland and Russia.

Enlightenment about substandard treatment

The time had come for Felix Karmazinov to enter the scene. Since 1987, he had been the head of the inefficient and uncompleted Vodokanal wastewater treatment plant in Leningrad. The technology was substandard; one could call the entire plant a sieve, because there was no other treatment to speak of. In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in August 2010, Karmazinov related that, before the Helsinki Convention, he had never heard of nutritive salts or how they were connected to algae bloom. Up to that point, he told the newspaper, they had relied entirely on the water flow of the Neva River being sufficient to treat the wastewater.

But once the new environmental awareness had begun to seep through, even Karmazinov woke up. And when he did, he was wide awake and serious. He suddenly emerged as a leading advocate of this newfangled idea demanded by the outside world — the first effective wastewater treatment plant for St. Petersburg, a metropolis that was home to several million people.

The initial contacts were made in 1990 when HELCOM noted the importance of treating wastewater to remove the nutritive salts phosphorus and nitrogen. These substances caused massive algae blooms, particularly of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae as they were previously called). Techniques for this treatment stage had been perfected long ago and now they needed to be implemented in a treatment plant. This was to be Russia’s first plant to include chemical treatment and precipitation of phosphorus, as well as biological treatment of phosphorus and nitrogen. The techniques and necessary technology were found in Finland and Sweden. It also turned out that parts of the useless and half-finished treatment plant, then called the southwestern plant, could be used. Construction of the treatment plant had begun 30 years ago when the city was called Leningrad, a place that stank of filthy water and waste in the sewers and along the shoreline. In 1978, construction of a reservoir also began outside the city at Kronstad, where all wastewater would be collected in gigantic basin. Three treatment plants were planned in addition, but the funds dried up and the end result was one half-finished plant. Thirty years later, in the 1990s, this partially built southwestern treatment plant was to become useful again.

Financing and partnership

For the work to get started, the financing had to be in order — the prime ministers of surrounding countries immediately stepped in. The Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson and Paavo Lipponen of Finland lobbied energetically in Brussels to acquire funds to treat the discharges from St. Petersburg. In the end, the EU and the Nordic Investment Bank, NIB, allocated funds to the project. Sweden, Finland, and Denmark contributed via their state development assistance authorities. Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency, allocated 100 million Swedish Crowns (10 million euros), conditional upon matching funds from FINIDA, the Finnish Department for International Development Cooperation. Companies and other private financial backers were also activated, including NCC and Skanska in Sweden and YIT and the Juha Nurminen Foundation in Finland. The final cost of the project was 189 million euros. One should not forget that the investments in the treatment plant also brought export revenue and jobs to the neighboring countries of Finland and Sweden. The materials and technology were to be sourced from the partner countries. The project resulted in orders to Finnish companies, for example, to the tune of 30 million euros.

Construction began in 2003 and the first working plant was ready only two years later. It still did not receive wastewater from any more than 700,000 of the city’s population of five million, but the quality of treatment was entirely consistent with HELCOM directives.

And thus, there was a treatment plant. But more plants were needed and those that already existed had to be improved. The city’s northern treatment plant was operating, for example, but it was not entirely effective. Essential infrastructural changes were also required, such as connecting sewers through the city to pipe the water. That does not sound like much, but it requires a tunnel system deeper and bigger than the city’s subway system.

The reservoir, on which construction had begun in 1978 but had never really been finished, came under consideration again as a flood protection system for St. Petersburg. The Neva is a mightily flowing river, and its delta, where the city is built, frequently overflows its banks. A control system and protection from the water from both directions was required and this costly and complex endeavor began in 2003.

Treatment plants, infrastructure, flood protection: all of this was accomplished, but there was more on the agenda. A social and awareness-raising initiative was also required. The people of St. Petersburg had to stop wasting water! The means to the end was to charge for consumption, and water meters were installed — a complete novelty. Whether due to financial incentives or environmental awareness, water consumption per person and per day declined from 300—400 liters to 70 — half as much as the neighboring country of Sweden.

Numerous stakeholders have been involved since the project commenced. Many have contributed funds, others have contributed more environmental activism than money, and then there are those who are very good at rustling up the cash.

NIB praised the St. Petersburg project as an example of an unusually successful Nordic partnership. And Felix Karmazinov got his reward in 2005 when the first stage of the project was finished. In August of that year, he was given the Swedish Baltic Sea Water Award.

Greater environmental awareness

Today, 95 percent of St. Petersburg’s wastewater is treated to remove phosphorus to an acceptable level. Remaining challenges are environmentally toxic solid waste and sludge, for which incineration has been deemed the best solution. That may be open to discussion, but almost anything would be better than the waste dumps that were formerly pushed beyond capacity.

The city’s current project for 2013 is refurbishment of the public toilets. That might seem like a trivial problem, but estimates are that it will take until 2015 to provide enough privies for the people of St. Petersburg. An estimate of the costs for the waste treatment company Vodokanal has been made — and the result is that it will cost 20 rubles to use the toilet. There are however exemptions for certain categories of people: small children, former concentration camp prisoners, Heroes of the Soviet Union, people with disabilities, victims of political oppression, war veterans, conscripts, and many more. The Russian control systems seem to be alive and well. . . .

Nonetheless, the educational initiatives in the city with regard to water consumption have also spilled over to the next generation. There is not a school class in St. Petersburg that has not gone on a field trip to Vodokanal’s new World of Water Museum, inspected algae through a microscope, and written essays on the importance of an efficient wastewater treatment system.

And these days, you can actually drink the tap water in the city! In the past, tourists were strongly advised against drinking the water and tourist guides even recommended that people make sure their hotels had their own filter systems for hot water. The unfiltered water that flowed out of the taps was a color somewhere between orange and brown. But that was then. Today, the piped-in water has been treated and the water is potable.

Massive agricultural and industrial discharges

Should we be content, then? Unfortunately, no. Vodokanal, the finished treatment plant in St. Petersburg, is a true success story. But not so very far away in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a wastewater treatment plant was also planned in 1999. Here as well, money poured in from every direction: from the NIB, the European Development Bank and the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership, as well as Swedish Sida and the Danish Ministry of the Environment, names that were also attached to the successful project in St. Petersburg. The difference is that, in Kaliningrad, what happened was precisely nothing. The project was never realized. Today about 300 metric tons of phosphorus are discharged from Kaliningrad every year. By way of comparison, the total treated discharges of the entire country of Sweden amount to 400 metric tons of phosphorus — and for Finland, the figure is about 150 metric tons per year.

And it is still the case that the worst problems of the Baltic Sea with regard to nutritive salts — phosphates and nitrates — are unrelated to urban discharges. A HELCOM report from last year describes a single source, a fertilizer factory in the city of Kingisepp on the Luga River, from which untreated and unreported discharges flow into the Gulf of Finland, just north of Narva. The factory discharges 1,000 metric tons of phosphorus per year. By comparison, St. Petersburg produces about 630 metric tons. Unfortunately, because the fertilizer factory is a high political priority, the targets established by HELCOM and Vodokanal for discharges to the Gulf of Finland are ignored in practice.

The truly serious problems are not the defined discharges, but the many times larger and much vaguer covert discharges from barns and stables, livestock farms, and crop farms along the entire eastern shore of the Baltic. The vast mass production of pigs, chickens, and cows taking place there in the name of cheap food is the biggest challenge for affluent countries. Buying unreasonably cheap food is like doing business with a fence: we should know something does not add up. We must be willing to spend money — for waste treatment and food — to protect environmental values.

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