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Clean nature and water in Finland is a myth: a(nother) rant

September 24, 2014

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece.

I think I live in a hypocritical society when it comes to the state of the environment in this country. Just think if more people made better choices – you know, putting their garbage in the garbage can, putting it in recycling bins, returning the bottles and cans, stubbing those cigarettes out and then actually putting them in the garbage instead of throwing them on the ground… It wouldn’t look so ugly. There has been plenty of discussion recently around the way we have accepted the throw-away culture in Finland. Littering is worse than ever before and the city of Helsinki spends EUR 11 million a YEAR in clean up costs…

Awhile back, I brought the Little Miss to a local park to play. I often clean up the garbage on the ground, especially if there is glass. But on that day, I picked up 5-6 handfuls of cigarette butts – in a park for kids. What’s up with that? If parents are going to smoke while their kids play, fine, no problem – but don’t toss your butts into the same sand that your kids dig in – and may put in their mouths. You know what kids are like!

I think we need to take more personal responsibility to keep the environment free of garbage – the wastefulness and blatant lack of respect for the environment by some sectors of society has to stop. Stop being so lazy and apathetic.

Recently YLE News reported that Finns waste 9 MILLION EUROS in returnable cans every year, 9 million euros… If people are going to waste their money like that I will gladly take it. On the other hand, the reported recycling rate is 95 percent, which impressive. Too bad we can’t up that number and make it more admirable.

Water quality is in Finnish lakes and rivers is not as good as we think.

Agriculture is responsible for high amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen emissions into Finnish waters. In 2007 more than half of Finnish river waters and one fifth of Finland’s lake waters fall short of the “good” quality standard. The number of rivers and lakes classified as being of poor quality has remained almost unchanged since the mid-1990s. (From the now defunct HS International 24.11.2007)

Just a few weeks ago “deadly bacteria” was found in the waters near fur farming operations in the Pietarsaari region in Pohjanmaa. The situation is also apparently exacerbated by the drastic increase in the number of seagulls in the area. The water quality is so bad that environmental officials have recommended that people avoid swimming in local waterways.

Let’s talk catastrophy…

The failure of a tailings pond at the Talvivaara Mine in Kainuu in November 2012 sent millions and millions of litres of waste water contaminated with high concentrations of nickel, zinc, mercury, cadmium, aluminum and uranium. The waterways will probably never recover and the Finnish taxpayers will be shouldered with burden of cleaning up the some of most catastrophic environmental pollution this country has ever seen. Other mining operations in Raahe, Harjavalta and Orivesi have also released large amounts of polluted waste water into local waterways, seemingly without consequences.

Currently the Finnish Mining Act does not shoulder the costs of environmental clean-up on the (largely foreign) mining companies that set up shop in Finland. Basically they get to extract the metals, make a mess and take the profits with them – mostly outside of Finland.

The story of Talvivaara and mining overall in Finland and how it has affected people who live in these areas deserves to be told as it is, but that should be saved for another entry. Mining is necessary, yes, but in this country it can be done far better than it has been so far. I come from a mining community and I know they have done better than Finland as a country has. The wild west attitude shown by business and government with regards to mining in Finland is focused on short term maximal profit, with little regard for how it will play out far into the future.

Sustainable mining is an oxymoron and I detest the term. There is no such thing as sustainable mining, you either do it or you don’t – sustainable is leaving it in the ground and finding other ways to meet our needs.

That Finland is a clean, natural paradise is a myth, we’re well on our way to destroying a lot of it in the name of short term economic gain.

We can do better but let me end it here for now.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sonia permalink
    September 25, 2014 4:01 pm

    Even if I am worried (Carmen, you? Two rants in a row?! 😉 ), you have valid points here. In the course of time, I observed incredible self-righteousness whenever the question is “world’s cleanest, safest, best, [put more superlatives here]” comes up. There is too little open and fiercy discussion and too much protection of national myths. Also comparisons from outsiders are never welcome, which makes innovations stagnant and existing status quo rigid. They always shoot those down with “but others are not any better”, no matter if the topic is racism, environment or economy.

    Slowly, many illusions are crumbling (recommended reading Lumedemokratia/Quasi-Democracy by Katja Boxberg).

    What I find worrying is that there is a blue-eyed mindset regarding:

    – Fish, berries, mushrooms – the cesium concentration is (still) high, but don’t tell it aloud – it’s pure and organic! Don’t understand me wrong, I truly love them, eat them and don’t think that they are any worse then the neighborhood nuclear power plant, but the denial must die.

    – Waste management and recycling is lagging behind. When landfills will finally be ramped down also in Finland (in some countries the landfill use is very minor since the 1980s), we get a huge invoice for that.

    – EU-subsidized agriculture and water pollution: a taboo to discuss about. Also belief in “local” products (heavy, centralized controlling procedures and concentrated grocery oligopoly are often a paradox). Also lack of meaningful, _independent_ certification of organic products (apart of the triple as high price or something…).

    – Tap water myth – you can see how quickly things change as in the case of Nokia and (in smaller scale) Porvoo.

    – Environmental activists sued for discovering and filming the cases in Finnish pig farms etc. And as if it never happened. It only happens elsewhere.

    – Talvivaara – you cannot get a better example of “hyvä veli” behavior. Imagine Talvivaara was a foreign or – oh bummer – Russian enterprise spoiling the beautiful nature. Would the lack of consequences for a major environmental crime be also second to non-existent?

    – Voice against nuclear energy: off you are from the government.

    – Maintaining Europe’s (Western Europe’s?) worst and oldest car stock due to insane “luxury” taxes. Luxury? With this huge area and small rail density? Similar to the alcohol taxes, they are not even used in the same field for any improvements. Bumpy roads? Yes.

    I sometimes really cannot believe it.

    • anonymous permalink
      September 27, 2014 12:38 pm

      The thing about nuclear energy is that it’s probably the best of bad options for Finland. Now, new plants with breeder reactors would be the way to go there: less waste many times over and existing waste could be re-used as fuel. Nuclear energy is more expensive than other types, but what is the choice here? I don’t particularly like it, but I don’t see a choice:
      Dams destroy nature, are at the very least problematic for fish and create and release a lot of methane (from the plant life/soil rotting under the water), which is a potent green house gas. Also most if not all the applicable rivers in Finland have already been dammed.
      All fossil fuels, be it coal or gas, produce carbon dioxide. Coals are dirtier of course in terms of particle emissions, but gas extraction has leaks and releases methane and that’s even in traditional operation – let’s not start about fracking. As for the radiation, fossil fuels have that in very small concentrations, too, entirely naturally, but the large amount of emissions means that it leaks more radiation in absolute terms during normal operation than nuclear plants.
      More wind and solar should be built, but they need a serious backup not only for the everyday operation to account for the changes in production but especially for the temperature lows in the winter, when lots of energy is needed but the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Also, those quantities of energy can not be stored (except in hydropower reservoirs).
      Biofuels are problematic, because the amounts of biomass needed are huge and would result in large scale destruction of nature – so much so, in fact, that most of it would be gone and the rest would largely not be viable. Peat is essentially a fossil fuel in terms of carbon dioxide and extracting it in commercial scale is also very destructive.

      As for taxes not being used where they are generated, that is simply not possible. The wellfare state or a government in general can not be funded that way. You can’t make a profit on most of that stuff. And if you can, you’ll probably end up corrupting and subverting the whole idea of government. The money has to come from somewhere else. The car taxes have a positive result, though, as we have very low car prices before taxes. Lowering the taxes would largely bleed to the car manufacturers’ purses.

      I think the problem is partially that we’ve cut the public sector so much and in the wrong places that it doesn’t have money to do productive stuff, but only to run structures. We have a lot of people unemployed, who could use a job and a lot of work that ought to be done. That costs money, but if you factor in the unemployment costs, the rising health costs due to it, loss of taxes, all sorts of social costs, etc., I’m not sure we’re saving much keeping them unemployed. Besides, in a depression, the right thing to do is to run deficits and get people working to boost the demand, not cut government spending. These people don’t seem to know anything about macroeconomics. But thanks to euro, this needs to be done in the EU scale – especially since the US isn’t doing it either thanks to their right wingers.

      The tap water, it’s good until someone screws up. We simply need less screw-ups and more expertise spread around organizations. The higher-ups need to be less political and more like engineers with system-level thinking.

      The natural waters are not in a good state, but that’s because the effort to clean them up didn’t start until the 70s. They were a cesspool then. Also, lakes don’t flush the stuff out as fast, if at all. The only effective way to get the fertilizers out is to keep extracting biomass (or wait for it to become lower sediments). That stuff doesn’t just disappear.

      As for Talvivaara, it’s a good idea, but it seems as the people starting it were simply incompetent. Mining, etc., in general needs to be taxed more, essentially. At least part of the profits from extraction of natural resources need to be directly socialized and the cost of infrastruture, clean-up, etc. do need to be passed on the companies doing the extraction.

      I also find it annoying that the government doesn’t have any of their own projects regarding this sort of stuff. I mean they wouldn’t need to actually make a profit. A zero-profit operation would be worth it simply because it would employ people, hell, it would still be net positive in terms of money as it would get people out of unemployment benefits. A commercial operation could never function that way: They always need to make profit.

    • October 8, 2014 7:24 am

      Sonia, let me sum it up by saying, I just cannot believe the 110 percent blatant disregard people seem to have for the environment. People love the environment in Finland? I think for a very small minority that is true and they really do care. The stereotype that Finnish people value nature is just that, a stereotype… Not true at all.

  2. October 27, 2014 9:57 pm

    You seem to look at the matter from an urban point of view. I have a different perspective, both geographically and professionally. I have studied energy- and environmental technology in the past, and bio/chemical survey of waters used to be my primary job until last summer.

    Littering of parks and sidewalks is mostly a local, esthetic problem in finnish cities, not a serious threat to environment. (Don’t get me wrong, I still think littering is wrong and plain stupid).

    There are indeed radioactive materials in finnish nature, but there is more radiation from natural sources (from under ground and outer space) than from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

    It is wise to avoid eating wild mushrooms every day (if they are picked from the northeastern border area) but this is mostly because the toxic heavy metals from the russian mining industry in the Kola peninsula, not radiation.

    The ultimate majority of the water-fouling nutrients comes from forestry and agriculture. Unfortunately these are not interesting for the mass media, and therefore unknown to the general public.

    Accident or malfunction of industrial plants or mines (like the infamous Talvivaara copper mine) can have serious, long-lasting effects only locally. Of course, this does not make it acceptable to foul waters, nor does it take the responsibility from the companies or their owners. This is just how the current travesty of capitalism works. The profits are private, but losses are public.

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