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Battle For Russia's Lake Baikal Heats Up


WATCH: Long-time residents and local leaders talk about the effect that pollution from the paper plant has on their lives.

MOSCOW -- More than a year after the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill closed down, the air in the town located on the world's largest freshwater lake no longer smells like rotten eggs.

The plant, a bone of contention for environmentalists since it was built in the 1960s, polluted the water and the air around the town of Baikalsk, leaving behind its characteristic, pungent odor.

The plant was shut down amid ecological concerns in 2008. But the town's brief reprieve ended abruptly last month, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government approved a plan to eventually reopen the plant and resume dumping in Lake Baikal.

Supporters say the move will help improve the local economy and return jobs to former mill employees. But despairing local residents and activists have attacked the step, with 30,000 people signing a petition against the decision.

Environmental Damage

Environmentalist Roman Vazhenkov, the head of the Baikal program for Greenpeace Russia, says the plan will have a tragic effect not only on the lake but on the city itself, which had begun to wean itself off its economic reliance on the mill.

Vazhenkov says the return on the mill "will take the whole city and its almost 17,000 residents back to the 1960s. The factory at the time was probably a technological leader, but since then nothing has been invested in its modernization. The system didn't work; the flow [of waste] went into the Baikal."

"It's a dangerous enterprise in an ecological sense, but the relaunch of the project will also mean the end of any further development in the city overall."

The plant is controlled by LPK Continental Management, which is part of the industrial group run by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is seen as enjoying close ties to the Kremlin. The other 49 percent is owned by the state.

The deal was struck several months after Putin used a small submarine to plunge to the bottom of the 1,400-meter-deep lake. While at the bottom, he spoke to journalists on a radio linkup, saying, "I can see the bed of Lake Baikal and it is clean."

Scientists selected to accompany Putin on the trip offered public assurances that the past mill activity had not substantially harmed the lake. But many other researchers and environmentalists disagree.

"There is only one Baikal. Baikal is a unique lake, the oldest lake in the world, the deepest, with the largest number of species. You can drink Baikal water straight from the lake, so why throw such dangerous substances in there?" asks biologist Marina Rikhvanova, who heads the Baikal Wave support group in Irkutsk and has actively campaigned against the paper mill's return:

"Methanol, chloroform, formaldehyde -- things that kill. There's no need to do it. No need," she says. "People on the Baikal can do something else to earn a living. There is no need to pollute the lake."

Quelling Local Unrest

Some residents, however, have welcomed the government's decision. The town relied heavily on the plant, and after its closure local workers held protests demanding back pay and that the plant be reopened.

After Putin approved the move to relaunch the mill, the mayor of Baikalsk, Valery Pintayev, announced at a Moscow press conference that the measure would help quell mounting unrest among former factory workers left penniless by the closure.

Vladimir Putin inside a sub during a dive into the depths of Lake Baikal in August.
"You've heard a lot about how our people tried to lie on railway tracks, how we were ready to close the federal highway and go on hunger strike," Pintayev said. "There were demonstrations with many thousands of people that were meant to draw the attention of the government, regional authorities, and society at large to the situation we were in."

Pintayev said that after the difficulties of 2009, he couldn't imagine leaving nearly 2,000 mill workers "with no means to survive. If you include their families, that's half of our population that was dependent on our plant for survival."

One of the factory workers, a woman named Anna Gorshkova, spoke at the conference, arguing that as a longtime Baikalsk resident, she could testify that the mill production had had no lasting effect on the cleanliness of the lake.

"Many say that we're killing Baikal. I can tell you that we go and vacation by the Baikal. We drink the water, we swim in it," Gorshkova said. "The part of Baikal that's close to us is very clean."

Ecology vs. Economy?

Local activists argue that the city has made important strides since the plant closed. Biologist Rikhvanova organized professional training to help former mill workers find new work in the tourism industry. She says many of the mill's original workers have moved on without complaint, and argues that in addition to the ecological benefits, the mill's closure has helped Baikalsk evolve from a "monocity" dependent on one industry to a more economically diversified town.

"Now [the mill] can't find specialists. When the decision to reopen was made, supposedly for the sake of the city, people had already found work," Rikhvanova says. "There are only 500 to 700 people who are currently unemployed. Now people are coming in from other cities and the mill is taking them on for only seven months. So you ask yourself: why do they need to open the plant? The town doesn't need it."

Apparent moves against local activists have stepped up in recent weeks as controversy over the mill reopening has grown hotter. The Irkutsk office of Baikal Wave was raided last month by the police the same day as Pintayev and Gorshkova were promoting the benefits of the mill reopening in Moscow. The police said they were conducting a routine search for unlicensed software.

Ecological issues, like those of health and social welfare, have long been seen as taking a back seat to industrial and economic issues in Russia. Konstantin Proshkin, the general director of Baikal's mill, argues that pollution is inevitable and should be accepted as a natural part of industrial progress.

"Any sensible-minded person or engineer can understand perfectly well that any development of civilization involves polluting the environment," Proshkin says.

Rumblings Of Discontent

The Baikal controversy is one of a growing number of public protests that have appeared in Russia in the wake of the global economic crisis, and which have frequently met with a swift response from a government unnerved by any sign of mass public unrest.

Mass antigovernment rallies were held in the Far East city of Vladivostok in December 2008 and January 2009 after the government imposed a steep increase on tariffs on imported cars. The federal government was forced to fly in its own riot police after local law enforcement troops refused to crack down on the demonstrators, who were seen as standing up for a basic bread-and-butter issue.

Thousands rallied in Kaliningrad against a vehicle tax hike in January.
Putin was forced to visit the northern industrial town of Pikalevo last summer after unemployed workers there blocked the highway in a dispute involving a failed cement company also owned by Deripaska. Late last month, more than 10,000 people in the western exclave of Kaliningrad reportedly gathered in protest against a tax hike in a demonstration that was seen as unusually heated in its anger against both Putin and the local governor.

Earlier this week, a group of 80 people gathered in the center of Khanty-Mansiisk, the capital of the autonomous region of the same name, to protest in support of the outgoing governor, who is due to be replaced by a candidate picked by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The protests got the attention of the Kremlin, who sent an envoy to the region, and some media have reported the outgoing governor may be offered an alternative post in the regional government.

Although much of the unrest has simmered far from the federal center, the capital has not been immune to growing discontent. Residents of the Rechnik dacha settlement are staging an ongoing protest against the city-ordered demolition of their homes. The residents scored a reprieve this week when a city court ordered the demolition be suspended.

Meanwhile, in Baikalsk, the fate of the town remains unclear. For now, only a faint plume of smoke can be seen from a hill on the edge of the town, as the plant is producing only test batches of unbleached pulp ahead of resuming full-time work.

Rikhvanova notes wistfully that without the mill, the area could be a major draw for tourists eager to visit the lake, a UNESCO world heritage site, which boasts one of only three freshwater seal species, and over 1,000 species of plants. But if the mill remains, she says, such goals are lost.

"With the plant working, it means primarily that there is a horrible smell. Nobody is going to go on holiday and start to sniff [the air], when they can simply go to a place that doesn't smell," Rikhvanova says.

RFE/RL correspondents Yekaterina Vertinskaya and Yury Timofeyev contributed to this report from Baikalsk

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