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Siberian Factory Town Struggles to Balance Man and Nature

Baikalsk, Russia; July 8 (RFE/RL) -- Many names are used to describe Russia's Lake Baikal: most often, it is called the Pearl of Siberia or simply the Sacred Sea.

Baikal is the world's deepest and most ancient lake. Its shores are home to nearly 2,000 endemic species and 20 percent of the planet's liquid fresh water. In summer, Baikal's exceptionally clean, richly-oxygenated water can be drunk straight, being purer than most bottled mineral waters. In winter, that water is covered by a transparent layer of ice over a meter thick. If you have the stamina, you can walk the over 50 kilometers from one shore of Baikal to the other.

Baikal's crystal-clear, mineral-free water is the key to the lake's uniqueness and the reason why Moscow decided, some 30 years ago, to build the Baikalsk Cellulose Paper Plant along its shore. The space race with America was in full swing, and thousands of Communist Youth League workers were dispatched to Baikal to construct a factory that could produce "super cellulose," using Baikal's unique water, for the Soviet air force and space industry.

The plant opened in 1966. Many workers stayed and built homes around the belching factory. The town of Baikalsk was born. Today, 17,000 people live in Baikalsk. Of those, 3,500 are directly employed by the cellulose plant. The rest either have family members at the plant or are employed themselves by businesses tied to the plant. In Soviet times, factory management took care of everything in town, from repairing the sidewalks to heating the schools in winter. Now, the plant and Baikalsk's administration have formally split: the factory pays taxes to the town and the mayor's office fixes the roads.

But Vice-Mayor Andrei Durnykh says the difference is more in procedure than substance. Ninety-five percent of the town's budget still comes from the cellulose factory's tax contribution. And that tax contribution has grown in recent years, as the factory has found new export markets in China and neighboring Russian regions.

Factory profits grew from 3.6 million dollars in 1993 to over 30 million dollars in 1995. The cellulose produced here no longer goes into aircraft tires and booster rockets, but into viscose for garments - for which there is a much greater demand. Since last year, world cellulose prices have fallen, but Baikalsk's Cellulose Paper Plant remains that rarest of Russian assets: a profitable factory.

People live relatively well here. In the town of 17,000, there are nine kindergartens, three theaters, a brand-new sports center. Three and five-storey apartment blocks stand amid alleys of tall pines and birches. If it were not for the sulphurous odor which hangs over Baikalsk, one could forget about the factory. But the odor is omnispresent - it smells like cooking cabbage, but is in fact a far more dangerous brew of lignite, sulphur, chlorine and other chemicals.

The air pollution is one thing: most people here say they don't even notice it. It is the 200,000 cubic meters of spent water and chemicals that are discharged back into Lake Baikal each day that has raised an international outcry.

Concern over Baikalsk helped launch the enviromental movement in Russia, years before perestroika and the fall of Communism. A coalition of writers, scientists and civic leaders campaigned against the plant and for the preservation of the lake. Their efforts coul not stop the plant's construction, but they did ensure that the factory was built with the most modern water purification system of the day.

The head of the plant's water treatment facility is Nelly Tikhonova. She admits that "the tragedy is that the plant was built on Baikal." And she adds, "Had it been today, that would not have been necessary. We no longer need such pure water for cellulose manufacturing." But Tikhonova says international experts agree that if today's plant were standing anywhere else but on Lake Baikal, it would be considered a model of environmental cleanliness.

Waste water first goes through a biological treatment process, where is is cleansed of bacteria. It is then funneled into a series of outdoor pools the size of several football fields, where it undergoes chemical treatment. Aluminum particles are released into the water, where they clump together with lignite filaments. A third process, in yet another basin, filters the whole mix once again. The entire procedure takes 48 hours and by the time the water is released into Lake Baikal, it is clear with only a slight sulphurous aftertaste.

Tikhonova jokes that treated plant water is cleaner than what comes out of most taps in the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, even plant administrators acknowledge that the cellulose factory is responsible for around one percent Baikal's yearly water pollution. And in a pristine eco-system such as Baikal's that may be one percent too many.

The irony is that large cities such as Ulan Ude, 150 kilometers away, and other factories farther upstream contribute more to Baikal's pollution than the Baikalsk plant. A recent investigation by the United Nation's Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) confirmed these findings. But unlike Ulan Ude, Baikalsk is a one-factory town and it is solely dependent on the cellulose plant for its very existence. If the factory were to shut tomorrow, as some ecologists would like, so would Baikalsk.

"Everyone discusses how to 'reprofile' the plant and all these Russian and international experts come here to inspect the factory," says Vice-Mayor Durnykh. "But no one ever discusses how to 'reprofile' the town. That makes no sense. You can't talk about changing the factory without changing Baikalsk," he adds.

That is a sentiment echoed all over town, and also at the Baikal Center for Ecological and Citizen Initiatives in the regional capital, Irkutsk. The center is a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable development along Baikal's shores.

Program Director Arkady Kalikhman says ecological concerns cannot be divorced from social ones. He points out that activists back in the 1960s were unable to prevent the plant's construction and he says they will not be able to close it now, if all they do is picket. Kalikhman concludes, "Local inhabitants, city authorities, ecologists and factory management must all come together to discuss new alternatives."

Just such a coalition is beginning to take shape in Baikalsk. A sister-city agreement with the American town of South Lake Tahoe in California has provided added impetus. Thirty years ago, South Lake Tahoe was a largely industrial lakeshore settlement. But over the years, a coalition of citizens and ecologists, working together with local authorities and industry helped re-orient industry and turn the area into a green belt.

Viktor Khotilovich now aims to duplicate the experience in Baikalsk. He runs the town's Ecological Education Center, which he opened himself after saving enough money through odd jobs to buy a dozen computers and rent two rooms in a local school. Khotilovich' center caters to 150 schoolchildren of all ages who come here after classes to learn about the environment through demonstrations and computer games.

Khotilovich cautions that it took South Lake Tahoe two years and 30 public meetings to draft a series of industrial reform proposals. He is just preparing for his second meeting of local activists and administration officials in a few days. But he is hopeful. Results of a survey which he distributed to local inhabitants show that over half thought industrial plants should not exist on the shores of Lake Baikal. At the same time, over two-thirds of those surveyed said they did not want the cellulose plant to close soon.

Khotilovich says alternatives to the factory range from building sanatoria to setting up strawberry farms. Thanks to the region's wet, cool climate, strawberries grow to the size of small apples here. No concrete plans have been drafted yet. But even if the cellulose plant continues to modernize, jobs will be shed, so that alternatives employment will have to be created in Baikalsk no matter what happens. Khotilovich recalls his visit to a similar plant in the United States, which he says produced twice the cellulose with one-tenth the employees.

Local radio correspondent Svetlana Volgina says she feels intuitively that Khotilovich and his coalition are on the right track, even if she remains a skeptic. Both her husband and son work at the cellulose plant. But Volgina, who was recently elected as Baikalsk's deputy to Irkutsk's regional legislature, says a solution must be found that will not overlook her constituents' interests.

"It hurts to hear all the abuse directed at Baikalsk from people who have never even come here to take a look," she says, and adds, "we love our city and our lake most of all. We put in the best years of our lives here and our children call it home. Baikal is unique, but aren't its people unique as well?"