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Anna Lihodedova

  • Faculty of Architecture
  • Urban Studies
  • MA
  • The Oil Shale Invisible Waste Causes and Urban Impacts in Kohtla-Järve
  • Tutor: Keiti Kljavin, Maroš Krivý

This thesis brings forward the political, economic, urban, and social impacts of the restructuring of the oil shale mining and production sector in Estonia enforced by the European Green Deal and Paris Climate Agreement. The largest amount of waste in Estonia is produced by mining, quarrying, and energy production sectors — all situated in Ida-Virumaa County. Historically Kohtla-Järve has become the capital of oil shale enterprises, where industries are forming the city itself. In the past several decades, post-industrial shrinking cities have played an important role in urban studies. The aim of this thesis is to develop more sophisticated methods for scrutinizing the industrial city on the assumption of the waste theory.

The thesis focuses on the situation in Estonia, particularly Ida-Virumaa County and the city of Kohtla-Järve.
According to Eurostat, in 2018 as much as 62% of waste in Estonia was generated by mining, quarrying and energy production. The situation needs broader changes in political and economical aspects, affecting the energy sector.
I looked at people in their cultural setting during the site visits, did a critical analysis of the waste policies and legislation, conducted interviews with activists. The goal was to understand, what are the different layers of invisible waste in Ida-Virumaa and Kohtla-Järve. Beyond the fact that waste is commonly understood as unwanted or unusable materials.
The most common types of pollution are water and air pollution. History knows the cases when contamination incidents were deliberately hidden.
In the 1980s, Erik Puura became the first local environmental scientist. One of his studies is dedicated to Kukruse hill in Kohtla-Järve, consisting of limestone shivers and oil shale pebbles. In 1988, the hill has been already burning. Burning processes inside the Kukruse are invisible, however, they have a great impact on the environment.
In 2016 a 9.7 million investment was approved to make Kukruse hill safe, however, the burning process is still active. Despite this fact, the situation is not being widely discussed.
Pollution is difficult to tangle. Collections of statistics on waste are deficient since their production and disposal are unique in each nation-state. The problem of data inaccessibility is also relevant. Quantitative and qualitative data may contradict each other.
Starting the periodization of waste in Estonia I got inspired by Zsuzsa Gille’s book “From Cult of Waste to Trash Heap History”, where she focuses on the situation in Hungary, dividing periods mainly by the materials. I decided to divide waste regimes in Estonia based on the regulations, which have a direct impact on the amount and material of waste along with the main types of waste production. Contrary to Gille, who finds the focus on policies problematic, because this perspective sees solutions in terms of post facto problem management. I started the chronology of waste production and management in Estonia from the historical period of First Independence when the oil shale processing started in the Kukruse district of Kohtla-Järve.
This section a prognosis based on The European Green Deal strategies, aiming to deal with the problem before the event. The EU Green Deal is a package of measures ranging from cutting greenhouse gas emissions to investing in cutting-edge research and innovation. The main aim of the Green Deal is to make Europe climate neutral by 2050.
Kohtla-Järve city resemles an archipelago, consisting of scattered districts. I will focus on the Järve district. Kohtla-Järve received the city rights in 1946. During the Soviet Period the intensive expansion of the oil shale industry has led to a massive influx of migrant labor from the former Soviet republics.
The Järve district of Kohtla-Järve makes up 51% of the total city area and hosts most of the industries, and most of the population. The Land Use map of the Järve district shows that the majority of the designated land in the district is used for production and waste disposal.
Viru Keemia Grupp main activities are oil shale mining, shale oil production, combined heat and power generation, production, and marketing of chemical products. Today VKG is one of the main actors in the region regarding employment, economy and environment.
Estonia might not have produced as much oil shale waste as it did if in the mid-2010s the decision-makers would not come up with the rescue package and a new oil shale development plan, contradictory to the Paris Agreement and the new climate policy.
Currently Kohtla-Järve is on the border of changes forced by the European Green Deal. The Green Turn in the restructuring of existing and the emergence of new industries is supposed to run the change of environmental situation in Kohtla-Järve. Today Baltic Chemical Park (BCP) is actively expanding, attracting new and more sustainable industries.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the migrants decided to leave Estonia, others stayed, this had an impact on the ethnic composition of the city. Today Kohtla-Järve is facing the situation, where ethnical Estonians are the minority and the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.
The Kohtla-Järve population decline started in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today the number of inhabitants is mainly influenced by the negative birth rate, internal migration, especially moving to Tallinn and emigration abroad.
The most disturbing problem in Järve is invisible air pollution. Kohtla-Järve City Council considers the exceeding concentration of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) to be the main problem in the city. The sources of this pollution are the territories of VKG and OÜ Järve Biopuhastus. Numerous scientific studies have linked air pollution to a variety of problems, including the early death of people. For instance, Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is known to be involved in cancer biological processes.
According to Ida-Viru County Health Profile, by tby the projected number of years of healthy life since birth, it ranks among the weakest in Estonia. The main causes of early deaths are circulatory diseases, tumors, alcohol-related deaths, and accidental deaths.
The shrinking population leads to the decline of the investor interest in Kohtla-Järve. The unemployment rate there is one of the highest in Estonia, exceeding the average almost twice. Undeniably, today Kohtla-Järve can be characterized by falling property prices, rising unemployment, decreasing and aging population, pollution.
In the Järve district of Kohtla-Järve, the problem of abandoned residential property is quite acute. There is a further problem with paying the bills for the abandoned apartments, remaining residents risk being left without heating during the winter.
The municipality is facing the same problems. In February of 2017, the City Council of Kohtla-Järve gave the ownership of 31 municipal apartments to the state. Unclaimed and uninhabitable apartments go to the state, along with their debts, these actions with real estate are resembling waste management.
Observing an emptying and shrinking city seems that some of the inhabitants are losing personal attachment to the urban, therefore they are losing the care. The unused garages are becoming rubbish dumps.
Along with the diminishing number of youngsters in Kohtla-Järve, school buildings are getting empty. During one of the site visits, I discovered that the former school building is currently being used as a warehouse. The land use of the location turned from education to production. This case might be considered as a visible example of how the industrial scale in Kohtla-Järve is penetrating the city itself and replacing its functions.
Industries have to pay more for the emissions, therefore they are forced to reduce the production costs, which is leading to job cuts and unemployment. This becomes critical if the city is monofunctional, it leads to the population outflow and diminishing property values, which leads to a problem of abandonment. Unfortunately, the problem is being talked about only regarding the future investments and the money inflow.
Today the activists from Tallinn and Tartu are addressing the contradictions of the Ida- Virumaa. For instance, in June 2019 they critisized the decigion of the Estonian government to support the construction of an oil shale refinery in Ida-Virumaa. Activists from Fridays for Future went to court to stop the construction. In May 2021, the Tartu County Court upheld the application for an interim injunction and suspended the construction. This case is the example of the interest conflict between the environmental activists, governments and public insttutions.
The upcoming transition plans might be perceived as a junction of post facto and ex-ante problem management. However, the environmental issues are being once again addressed only regarding the funding. The Just Transition Mechanism will be targeted to a fair and just green transition, to support workers and citizens of the most impacted regions. Ida-Viru County will receive the strongest support per capita in the European Union.
The vision of the government on paper supports decoupling economic  growth from the resource use. Though, the real decisions seem to be contrary to the vision. 

 According to the representative of the oil shale industry VKGthe plan of the new government to quickly declare off the use of oil shale is a mistake. Another representative of VKG claimed, that the Green Turn is a powerful impulse for industrial innovation, however, he questioned whether it will be an evolution or a revolution meaning the destruction of the industry, which is an unwanted consequence of the deal.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications in cooperation with Ida-Virumaa municipalities founded a development organization — Ida-Viru County Industrial Areas Development Foundation (IVIA) aiming to develop diverse industrial and business parks in Ida-Viru County. One of their industrial and business parks is located located in the Kohtla-Järve Järve district. The title of Baltic Chemical Park (BCP) hints the chemical production and therefore questions the idea of diversity. 

The scientists from TalTech Virumaa College emphasize that there is plenty of land, which is irreversibly damaged, there is energy, there are chemical industry professionals — all that is required for the emerging modern chemical production. Nevertheless, some diversification of the Baltic Chemical Park succeeded as well. For instance, in 2021 the factory that will produce small wind power generators is being actively constructed. 

Expressing the opinion regarding the abandoned building in Järve district locals supported the idea of renovation, they underlined the good location of the apartment buildings, close to all the required facilities and the city center. This was contrary to the scaling-down strategy of the local authorities in Kohtla-Järve, which wanted to demolish these buildings. 
The successful transition could lead to economic diversification through the ability to emerge different industries, which will open an opportunity to better withstand different geopolitical and economic changes. In my opinion, the best solution for the region would be incremental innovation focusing on the optimization of the existing processes. Innovation and new technologies should be applied using opportunities already existing in the region, for instance, universities, laboratories, professionals, industries, etc.