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Blaming Western Sanctions, Russia Pushes 'Dangerous' Cleanup Plan For Lake Baikal

A ferry crosses the ice-covered waters of Russia's Lake Baikal in winter. The lake is a UNESCO-protected ecosystem that holds about 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. (file photo)

Russian authorities say Western sanctions have made it impossible to implement their plan to remove toxic waste from the watershed of Lake Baikal. The proposed solution: a cheaper method that a Greenpeace activist said would be extremely dangerous for the once-pristine “pearl of Siberia.”

In a submission to parliament in May, Russia's Natural Resources Ministry proposed revisions to its regulations concerning the purity of the watershed feeding Lake Baikal that would substantially increase the levels of pollutants allowed in the water.

If lawmakers approve the changes, iron levels would be increased by a factor of 10, chromium levels by 1.3, and mercury by 13. The acceptable level of organohalogen compounds-- toxins commonly used in solvents and pesticides -- would be 200 times higher than it is today.

Altering the pollutant norms would create serious threats to the lake’s ecosystem, especially considering that the existing norms were already considered untenable, the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences has warned.

Activists say the changes would essentially mean the government has stopped controlling the emissions of organochlorine compounds into the lake -- compounds that have already been linked to health problems in Baikal seals, the only freshwater seals in the world.

A Baikal seal, which is the only freshwater seal in the world, at the Limnological Research Institute in Irkutsk.
A Baikal seal, which is the only freshwater seal in the world, at the Limnological Research Institute in Irkutsk.

At a hearing on the matter last week at the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, experts testified “indifferently, as if they were not discussing Baikal but some reservoir in a village,” said Roman Vazhenkov, head of the Baikal Program at Greenpeace Russia.

“[We are talking about] dioxins, carcinogens, substances that accumulate in the body over time and lead to disorders of the immune system and the reproductive system,” Vazhenkov said. “Scientists have already proved that in the late 1980s, the mass die-off of seals and other animals was caused by organochlorine poisoning.”

The government says the proposal is a direct result of international sanctions imposed on Russia over Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Lake Baikal, a unique, UNESCO-protected ecosystem that holds about 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, has been called the Galapagos of Russia because it is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, about two-thirds of which are found nowhere else.

The Baikal pulp and paper mill in 1996.
The Baikal pulp and paper mill in 1996.

During Soviet times, a large paper mill was built on the lake, wreaking ecological havoc. In 2013, on President Vladimir Putin’s orders, the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill (BPPM) was permanently closed after 47 years of operation. But it left behind 6.5 million tons of hazardous waste sludge stored in crumbling containers along the lakefront. If any of them were to collapse, tons of toxic waste could be dumped into the lake.

The government’s original plan was to pump waste out of the containers and reprocess and compost it at another site. But the effort never got off the ground, and Western sanctions have now restricted access to needed technology, prompting the government to adopt a new tack, officials say.

In November 2020, the government changed the contractor for the cleanup effort for the fourth time, choosing a state company called Federal Ecological Operator (FEO), a subsidiary of the state Rosatom nuclear-energy agency. Last month, the government and FEO announced a new plan for coping with the waste.

FEO plans to use a process of lithification, the deep mass stabilization of waste using mineral geopolymer binders. Essentially, chemicals would be used to harden the sludge into something like cement at its current location, which theoretically would keep it from leaching into the watershed. But the process, environmentalists say, would require the substantial easing of standards for releasing waste into the lake and its associated rivers and streams.

Greenpeace activists prepare to dive into Lake Baikal to protest the Baikal pulp and paper mill's effect on the freshwater lake in 2011.
Greenpeace activists prepare to dive into Lake Baikal to protest the Baikal pulp and paper mill's effect on the freshwater lake in 2011.

The process would be “less expensive and, of course, very dangerous for Lake Baikal,” Greenpeace’s Vazhenkov said.

“As I understand it, the technological solutions selected by FEO for eliminating BPPM’s accumulated damage to the environment can only pass muster if the current requirements for discharges of industrial wastewater…are reduced substantially,” said Aleksandr Kolotov, the Russian coordinator of the Rivers Without Borders international ecological coalition and a member of the Angara-Baikal Basin Council.

The Natural Resources Ministry’s explanatory note to lawmakers said the changes to the wastewater standards are necessary “to implement tasks aimed at ensuring the implementation of work to lower the level of water accumulated on top of the sludge in the Solzansky and Babkhinsky storage areas.”

Environmentalists have warned for years that harmful substances are already leaching from the containment areas and have been detected in soil on the lakefront. Any landslide or major rain event, they say, could mean contaminated water could overflow the containers and enter the lake.

In a post on Telegram, Duma Deputy Dmitry Kobylkin, head of the Ecology Committee, said deputies would postpone action on the ministry’s amendments while the government revises its list of wastewater sources and “synchronizes technologies with waste norms.” This message raised red flags with environmentalists.

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“This is some sort of Russian newspeak,” Vazhenkov said. “You can look at this ‘synchronization’ two ways: to adapt technologies to the norms or to adapt the norms to the technologies. I think the government has chosen the path of increasing the impact on Lake Baikal, even though the government’s draft revisions drew about 9,000 negative public comments compared to seven positive ones.”

“Is this what we want for Baikal?” he added. “We have already reached the point where it is impossible to swim in this ‘pure lake.’ Since 2018, the resort on Olkhon Island has posted signs saying you can’t swim and that the coastal area is polluted. This is outrageous. We aren’t talking about [the crowded Black Sea resort of] Anapa, where it is common to get a case of rotavirus after swimming for two days. We are talking about Baikal!”

Even under the existing standards, Vazhenkov said, the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences has determined that the ecosystem of the lake is being altered in ways that allow invasive species to crowd out endemic ones and that contaminants in the water are causing blooms of spirogyra algae that are killing off endemic sponges, which play a crucial role in the lake’s self-cleansing system.

Over the past three years, activists say, wastewater has been pumped from sludge storage areas.

“This needs to be controlled because the water is discharged either into rivers flowing into Baikal or directly into the lake,” Vazhenkov said. “In fact, no one knows exactly where the water is dumped.”

Greenpeace believes it is folly to discuss what levels of contaminants can be released into the lake and its watershed.

“You can’t dump in Baikal at all,” Vazhenkov said.

Despite such fears, the activists believe the government’s revisions will be approved by the Duma this summer.

After that, Vazhenkov said, it is possible the floodgates of deregulation will be opened.

“The lobbying will continue,” he concluded, “and soon will we see attempts to further ease restrictions.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Russia by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities