HELSINKI — A Finnish environmental agency on Friday approved plans to build a natural gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea — the final permit needed for the underwater energy link between Russia and Germany.
The decision by the regional agency means the Russian-German joint venture Nord Stream AG can start the euro7.4 billion ($10.6 billion) project in April. The company had already received permits from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia and Finland's national government.
The first of two pipes is expected to be completed in 2011. Once completed the dual pipeline will carry some 1.9 trillion cubic feet (55 billion cubic meters) of natural gas a year from Vyborg in Russia to the German port of Greifswald — enough for more than 25 million people.
Europe is hoping a direct pipeline to Russia will ensure continuous supplies of natural gas. In recent years, a long-standing spat between Russia and Ukraine threatened supplies when Moscow turned off gas taps to Ukraine along a pipeline that also served western Europe.
Still, the project has generated heated debate in the region, mainly over security concerns and the impact on the fragile maritime environment of the brackish water. Environmentalists fear construction could lead to toxins and weapons being stirred up from the seabed in one of the world's most polluted seas.
Poland and other former Soviet and Soviet-bloc countries — traditional transit routes for Russian gas — also worry the pipeline could permit Russia to threaten their gas supplies without cutting off customers in Western Europe.
The Finnish government last year said it had no objections to the pipeline if environment authorities were satisfied with Nord Stream's plans to minimize ecological damage. The final hurdle was cleared Friday as the southern Finnish Regional State Administrative Agency gave permission for construction work in Finland's exclusive economic zone with certain conditions.
Agency spokesman Mika Seppala said they include safety regulations on exploding weapons in the water, and compensation for fishermen whose trade will be disturbed by the construction.
"They will have to use pipe-laying vessels in the Finnish zone which will not be anchored to the seabed so as not to stir up sediment," Seppala said.
Also, the agency will require that Nord Stream adopt "a close monitoring system" when the pipe-laying gets under way, he said.
Nord Stream spokesman Sebastian Sass said the company would fully comply with the conditions, calling them "tough but they are appropriate."
The approval comes just two days after Russian prime Minister Vladimir Putin downplayed environmental concerns about the project at a summit of Baltic Sea countries in Helsinki. Putin said the company had spent more than euro100 million ($135 million) to make sure the pipeline would be "absolutely safe and reliable."
Russia's Gazprom holds 51 percent of Nord Stream, while German energy companies E.ON Ruhrgas AG and Wintershall AG each have a 20 percent share. Dutch company Nederlandse Gasunie NV holds the remaining 9 percent.