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Implementation of and deviation from the environmental objectives of water resources management

The Ministry of the Environment has requested statements from final reports of projects regarding both implementing the environmental objectives of water resources management and deviating from the environmental objectives of water resources management. Our statement focuses primarily on the final report of the LupaMuutos project because the discussed actions especially regard our member companies. 

Local Power has 12 member companies that have in total 49 hydroelectric power plants. For the most part, the plants are small hydroelectric power plants of under 5 MW in power. Out of these, it is estimated that 10 to 20 are so-called zero-pertmit plants that do not have fishery-related obligations. Regardless, some of these plants have implemented fishery actions. Regulation changes regarding small-scale hydroelectric power and zero-permit plants have a significant impact on the member companies of Local Power. 

Local Power recognises that the objective setting and legal practice regarding the environmental objectives of water resources management both in Finland and in the European Union require a stronger consideration of the environmental aspects, including in terms of the hydroelectric power plants. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) of the European Union leaves, however, significant leeway at the national level and does not, as such, require opening the Water Act. Primarily, this entails a national outlining. Follow-up work should continue to investigate the possibility provided by the WFD to designate a body of water as heavily modified or to deviate from the environmental objectives based on, for example, climate objectives. 

If the possibility of re-evaluating water permits is included in the act, the applied procedure shall be very thorough and based on a water body- and plant-specific consideration and an overall assessment as well as come into question only in cases where the requirements set to new operators are sure to bring about significant environmental benefits in relation to the costs resulting from them and where all other cost-efficient actions for improving the status of fish stock in the water body in question have been explored and utilised. Bodies of water have also many other migration obstacles besides power plants. The requirement of a thorough consideration as a precondition to changing the permit shall be included in the act, its implementation cannot be left to the discretion of the permit authority. 

When constitutionally weighing the interference in the protection of property, case-specific consideration is always necessary, as is duly stated in the report. Constitutional weighing between the protection of property and an environmental basic right is very different in terms of hydroelectric power in comparison to, for example, the ban on fossil hard coal or restrictions on peat extraction that are referred to in the report. Hydroelectric power is a completely emission-free method of energy production that helps in preventing climate change. In our view, fighting climate change is also within the legal protection introduced by the environmental basic right. Due to its unbeatable load-following ability, hydroelectric power also promotes the increase of the other non-load-following emission-free production forms (wind and solar power), which makes its significance in fighting climate change greater than its own production potential. 

In our view, the pressure to modify water resources management permits focuses in particular to the so-called zero-permit plants, whose permits do not include environmental obligations. The member companies of Local Power have several zero-permit plants, whose owners are very small operators. Adding new obligations to these operators would cause in many cases such significant additional costs that the operation of the plants would have to be discontinued as unprofitable. This would form a case of a constitutional expropriation of property, which is also recognised in the report, as referred to in Section 15(2) of the Constitution of Finland, in which case the owners should receive full compensation corresponding to the current value of the lost property. The report discusses the determination of the compensation amount and that will require careful further examination. 

Before setting any permit-based obligations, all means shall be exhausted to implement voluntary fish passes and fish protection measures, including in the case of zero-permit plants. Our member companies have zero-obligation plants that have already built a fish pass or implemented some other environmental actions. The zero-permit plants are often situated in very small water bodies where the preconditions for the restoration of migratory fish stock are extremely limited. This further emphasises the need for a careful assessment and the need to negotiate all the measures with the permit holders. 

As is stated in the final report of the LupaMuutos project and in the assessment memorandum of the Ministry of Justice covering the same topic earlier (18 December 2018), the fulfilment of the environmental objectives and the need for permit changes forcing further measures to be taken and shall always be considered case-specifically for each plant permit. All water bodies and power plants are unique and setting common objectives for all would be unreasonable and ill-advised in view of the environment.