Although the State Environment Service issued, on November 4, a licence for category B polluting action to AS Ventspils Tirdzniecības Osta, the Ventspils City Council has protested against it, even threatened to turn to the Prime Minister. Such objection might seem noble, if it were not to the favour of the hidden personal interests of «the Baron of Ventspils» Aivars Lembergs, who is facing severe charges.
In opposing the Ventspils Commercial Port (VCP; official company title – AS Ventspils Tirdzniecības Osta), the City Council has not spared municipal and public resources, as well as tax-payer money. It is, however, clear to people following political events that the reason for such activity is not exactly public health and wellbeing. The real cause is the habit of Lembergs to turn against companies not under his control, with VCP being one of them. This time, Lembergs’ whim to harm a firm is strong enough to manipulate facts and mislead the public in order to reach the goal. VCP is also a company potentially belonging to the state of Latvia, for, if current court proceedings will end to the benefit of the state, VCP’s frozen shares would be expropriated. Reportedly, the Register of Enterprises, acting in accordance with the decision of a British court to freeze company shares – with Lembergs’ possibly being their true beneficiary – put a ban on the disposal, action with or devaluation of his assets in numerous corporate enterprises, including VCP.
As to the new licence, it would allow VCP to resume transhipment of coal in the transhipment territory, located near the Pārventa residential area, in the amount of 1.5 million tons per year. It would also open the opportunity to increase up to 1.6 million tons a year the amount of coal, iron ore and iron ore concentrate transhipped in the territory facing the Old Town. Denial of the licence or a demand to build a roofed terminal would force the company to go bankrupt. This might be a hidden objective of «the Baron of Ventspils» to show the inability of administrators appointed by prosecutors to administer the company shares allegedly owned by Lembergs and to reduce the value of arrested shares as much as possible. It must be noted that meanwhile, Lembergs supports – via the Free Port Authority, in the amount of dozens of millions of lats – companies such as Arbo and Dendrolight, perhaps, being in his hidden ownership and others – already being close to bankruptcy.
VCP is among the largest tax payers in Ventspils. In 2012, the company paid LVL 1.81 million (EUR 2.58 million), including LVL 0.65 million (EUR 0.93 million) into the budget of Ventspils. This year’s estimate reaches LVL 1.82 million (EUR 2.59 million) in taxes and LVL 0.62 million (EUR 0.88 million) into the city budget. «VCP employs 387 people on the basis of employment contracts; it also has a large freelance staff, which makes the total number of employed persons reach 1000 workers from Ventspils and elsewhere in Kurzeme. In addition, the operation of numerous other companies in Ventspils depends on VCP, be it firms providing tugboat, construction, assembly, car transport and personnel services, as well as many others,» in an interview with the BNN, said Director of VCP’s Administrative and Legal Deparment Alīna Rugina.
As of the beginning of November, the unemployment rate in the city is 7.5% – one of the lowest in Latvia’s major cities. «The consequences of VCP going bankrupt would be dramatic as we are the economic foundation of the city of Ventspils. We can speak about the tourism potential of the city, emphasised often by Mr Lembergs, but it is only for three months a year, while the population wants to earn their living throughout the year,» Rugina added, stressing that Ventspils could follow in the footsteps of Liepāja, where a company Liepājas Metalurgs is insolvent.
BNN has already reported that the closed operation of Liepājas Metalurgs has affected Latvian economy, with direct and indirect losses suffered by the state reaching LVL 230 to 250 million (EUR 326 to 355 million). Unpaid taxes and few millions in unemployment benefits are only two aspects that the state must take into consideration. Also in Liepāja, with the company going bankrupt a thousand people might be left out of work.
Member of Ventspils City Council Aivis Landmanis said in an interview to the BNN: «with Lembergs destroying VCP, the firm’s place would not be left empty». It is certain that a new company linked to Lembergs would established, possibly, taking over VCP’s field of operation.» Landmanis explained that one should look into the past events to understand, why the City Council is acting against VCP.
«It has been years since Lembergs and his subordinates control everything in Ventspils. In the city and the free port, everything is adjusted to his whims. The Free Port Authority has been turned absolutely secretive to entrepreneurs operating in the free port of Ventspils. The rules of the game are not clear and they also depend on Lembergs’ whims», the councilman unveiled adding that the situation is similar in the City Council.
In the municipality, information demanded by opposition members of city council is deliberately not provided on a scope of issues, including the free port operation.
«As a result of court proceedings and the assets of Lembergs being frozen in several corporate enterprises such as Ventbunkers, Kālija parks and VCP, Lembergs has lost his control in the boards of the companies. This is what has made him completely change his mind to the current opinion that there is dust and unpleasant smell in the city resulting of the operation of VCP. Before he lost the influence, no dust or smell came from VCP,» Landmanis underlined. The member of City Council also expressed a view that companies controlled by Lembergs – Ventamonjaks, Bio-Venta – as well as Kurzemes granulas, large municipal boiler houses and Ventspils zivju konservu kombināts create pollution ten times larger than that coming from VCP. It almost seems from observations voiced by Landmanis – the municipality would recognise coal dust as being healthy if Lembergs would still control the company.
«It should also be taken into account that VCP previously planned to build specialised terminals in its territory, but the Ventspils City Council did not allow carrying out the plan as in the terminals, no influence was envisaged for Lembergs. Currently, the City Council does not allow transhipping the existing cargo, but previously it opposed the development of the company. If the permission to build terminals would have been granted, the open territory, where coal is transhipped, would now be reduced in size,» the councilman told.
He considers that is not possible to alter the cargo structure over a day, as an investor should be found for long-term investment. Moreover, new projects will still be carried out only if the interests of Lembergs would be observed.
An instance of a promising business idea – abandoned due to lack of Lembergs influence in it – was the construction of a flour and pasta factory in the territory of VCP’s terminal. The concept was supported by Vladislavs Šafranskis, a representative of Ventspils graudu termināls. As reported previously by the BNN, two investors from Kazakhstan were ready to carry out the project worth EUR 15 million, with investment due to be repaid over a six-year period.
The «fathers of the city» had and still have a different opinion, namely, only that is good for the city, what is good to its mayor. Such seems to be the situation in Ventspils that entrepreneurs in the transit business operating in companies «foreign» to Lembergs are pushed away from making decisions that concern the city’s investment climate and many other plans have had a similar fate.
Although the City Council accuses the State Environment Service over a lack of interest in ensuring a safe and pollution-free environment for the people, Lembergs seems to have forgotten that the major polluters in the city are municipal heating company Siltums and SIA Kurzemes granulas. The latter also creates an explosive environment in the city. For example, in 2008, an explosion took place at the facility of SIA Kurzemes granulas. Wooden chips caught fire in a wood pellet conveyor, resulting in a blast and a fire that damaged the production line, broke windows and event bent facility walls.
The firm Ventamonjaks, possibly, secretly under his control, could cause an environmental disaster, as witnessed during a powerful storm that raged in Ventspils on January 9, 2005. At the time, fearing a leak from the firm’s ammonia storage facilities, many fled from the city, even putting themselves in danger of falling trees. Over a single night, thousands of residents left the city.
In a worst case scenario, the poisonous effect of ammonia leak in Ventspils could reach a region located about 100 kilometres from the city. According to doctors, the unfortunate possibility of inhaling ammonia could prove deadly as respiratory organs would suffer serious damage.
In the aftermath of the storm, Lembergs rejected claims that there was a lack of crisis information in the city saying: «Did I have to drive through the city with a speaking-trumpet and inform residents?» BNN has also reported that in 2011, during its loading from Ventamonjaks terminal to tanker Asc the extremely hazardous substance of acrylonitrile leaked. At the place of the accident, the presence of acrylonitrile vapour in the air exceeded the permitted level by 500 times and in the water, by 400 times.
City residents were not warned of the danger, neither taking water or fishing was banned in the port waters. Luckily, the wind did not blow acrylonitrile vapour to residential areas. However, intoxicated workers Valentīns Čerņakovs, Artūrs Morars and Aleksejs Efimovs received medical treatment at the hospital. In this instance, neither mayor of Ventspils Aivars Lembergs, nor this three deputy chairmen or heads of city services or local media provided information on the accident.
The claims of VCP polluting the environment are unfounded, as the air quality in Ventspils is good and has improved over the recent years. Concerning the specifics of air quality, it must be noted that between 2008 and 2011 the presence of PM10 particles in the city air has fallen and other polluting matters show a similar trend. In Ventspils, air is both cleaner than that on Riga’s busiest streets and the Kurzeme city of Liepāja.
«In the European Union and Latvia, air quality standards are observed, which are levels of pollution established on a scientific basis in order to eliminate, prevent and reduce the harmful effects of pollution on human health and the environment. Human health can suffer from tiny particles of dust that may enter our lungs. Therefore, to protect human health, regulatory enactments set forth the permissible levels for the concentration of particles PM10 and PM2.5. The permissible concentration of particles PM10 is 40 µm/m3, while the concentration of these particles found in Ventspils is significantly below this level,» Aiga Kāla from the air pollution measuring firm SIA Elle explained.
Kāla said: «In addition to pollution monitoring stations that are part of the state air pollution measuring network, the quality of air in Ventspils is also measured exactly on the borders of the territories of both VCP transhipment compounds. The company has been doing air measurements since 2009 and the highest annual average concentration of particles PM10 was found in 2010, with their concentration reaching 26.07 µm/m3. That is a significantly lower level of pollution than the permissible level for the protection of human health (40 µm/m3).» The expert indicates that the data of the «Review of Air Quality in Latvia in 2012» show that in Ventspils, more significant than the concentration of PM10 and PM2.5 is the concentration of benzol and benzopyrene. The two latter exceed the upper level of pollution measurement for the protection of human health.
The City Council is manipulating with the information that in a public survey conducted in March 2013, improvement of air quality was selected as the third key issue, which should be dealt with in Ventspils. The Ventspils branch of the Latvian Green Movement summarised 155 signatures collected from residents being against the new licence for VCP. 575 residents of Ventspils, however, have expressed their support for granting the licence to VCP.
«The letter addressed to the prime minister, as well as the information spread in the media is hypocrisy from the part of the Ventspils City Council. We have rebutted every argument the City Council provided to environmental experts. Now, the City Council acting against us seems be the championing of its own interests and not efforts to protect the health of residents,» Rugine told.
She considers that the current efforts of the City Council could be described as a campaign of public relations and she does not see how the municipality could legally oppose the licence granted to the company. The City Council had 90 days to act, a month-long public consultation has taken place and still the licence has been granted to the VCP.
Rugine highlighted an instance of Baltic Coal Terminal prevailing in a dispute with the municipality, with the latter objecting to license for polluting action issued by the State Environment Service. In this case, the Environmental Monitoring State Office had filed to the Administrative District Court a written opinion that the Ventspils City Council has no right to oppose the permissions issued by the State Environment Service.
Likewise, the VCP representative stressed that it is not right from the part of the municipality to scare residents with the alleged health risk posed by coal pollution, as according to the results of air quality measurements, the VCP’s dust particles in a year are far from reaching levels harmful to human health. «There is only the aesthetic feeling caused by coal dust, for example, dirty windowsils or windows and not a human health risk.
The VCP is developing as a company and we will now be able to control the dust also in winter, not only in summer time, when water is sprayed over coal. In the winters to come, snows cannons will cover coal piles even when there will be no natural snow. It will both look good and prevent coal dust from being blown away by the wind.
We have received the new license that we have earned and we will defend ourselves in case anyone would try to oppose it,» the firm’s representative said answering the question if VCP is ready to go to court in necessary.
VCP’s deputy head in economic affairs Gatis Meiris noted that without the license all VCP employees would lose their jobs, which would be a disaster similar to the developments at Liepājas Metalurgs.
«The city of Ventspils would only lose in such an event as the municipal budget would not receive taxes and the jobless would have to ask the state unemployment benefits or leave the city. A part of service companies would also lose some income, which takes us back to unemployment and reduced tax income for the city budget and the free port of Ventspils.
Port has always been at the heart of the city’s economy and such it will remain. If we – the residents – will be as categorical toward everything that bothers us in the operation of the port, the city of Ventspils will lose its soul, residents and jobs and stable companies,» the firm’s representative concluded.