Russia to reopen polluting Baikal papermill

Posted: 22 January 2010

Russia has opted to reopen a notoriously polluting paper mill on Lake Baikal, reversing long-time protections to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week issued a new decree on the inclusion of "corrections" to the List of Banned Activities in the Central Ecological Zone of Lake Baikal, which contained environmental safeguards to protect the lake. This list was first adopted in 2001, a major environmental victory at the time.

According to the new resolution, the discharge of sewage waters into Lake Baikal is now allowed. In addition, the decree allows for the storage and disposal of hazardous waste on the lake's shores.

"Restart of the mill is being regarded as a necessity to preserve the jobs," said Igor Chestin, WWF Russia Director. "However, the resumption of its work will mean that Russia violates its obligations as one of the signatory party of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention."

Sunset over Lake Baikal © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
Sunset over Lake Baikal © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
Sunset over Lake Baikal© Greenpeace / V.Potansky
"The new resolution weakens the protection level of the World Natural Heritage site. It means that when a mission of the World Heritage committee could come to Russia and in the future Lake Baikal would be given a status of a World Heritage site under threat".

Russian environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and WWF, have demanded that the government cancel the resolution.

Greenpeace said it was deeply concerned by Putin's decree, adding that it had written to the president, Dmitry Medvedev, to ask him to cancel it. It described the Soviet-era paper mill as an "ecologically dangerous enterprise" and claimed Russia was flouting its international commitment to protect the lake.

"The impact of the mill has been discussed many times not just by environmentalists but also by scientists," Roman Vazhenkov, Greenpeace Russia's Lake Baikal campaigner, told The Guardian.

"I think we can be sure it [the mill] will never kill Baikal, but it can significantly spoil the southern part of it. The area of impact is several dozens of square kilometres. It covers quite a big part of southern Baikal - not just the water, but the shore as well."

Vazhenkov said there had been a "huge die-off" of Baikal's indigenous seal or nerpa population - one of only three entirely freshwater seal species in the world - during the 1990s. The lake also boasts its own fish, the omul, 1,085 species of plants and 1,550 animals.

"The resolution that allows the resumption of work of the Baikal paper mill was adopted against the opinion of the Irkustsk research center of the RAS (Russian Academy Of Sciences) Siberian branch and numerous environmental organizations, and without a proper public discussion - which is the violation of the main principles of sustainable development," said Dr. Evgeny Shvartz, WWF's director of conservation policy in Russia. "Therefore, we reckon that this resolution must be cancelled and a negotiation process on this problem should be started between all the stakeholders to find an optimal and balanced solution that will ensure the protection of the unique Baikal Lake nature".

Baikal's paper mill was built in 1966. It is situated in Baikalsk (Irkutsk region), on the South-Western shore of Lake Baikal. The paper mill is a principal employer and mainstay of the entire town. It employed more than 2,300 people, out of the town's 17,000 inhabitants. In autumn 2008, a closed-loop water system was introduced at the mill, which helped to prevent Baikal Lake from the industrial wastes. In the beginning of September of that year, the mill stopped the production of the brown/unbleached pulp. According to a factory's director, there is no technical solution that will allow to produce bleached pulp without any waste. Brown pulp production is not as profitable as the bleached one, and the mill became unprofitable, loss-making factory and suspended its work in October 2008.

The 3.15-million-ha Lake Baikal in Siberia is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, according to UNESCO's website. It contains 20 percent of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve. Lake Baikal first received UNESCO designation in 1996.

According to environmentalists, Baikal paper mill's activity is the main threat to a unique nature of the Lake Baikal.