Comment: A black day for Lake Baikal


Publish date: January 17, 2011

Written by: Boris Vishnevsky

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG – January 13 marks a black day for Russian environmentalists: a year ago on that day Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a Russian government decree “on the introduction of changes in the list of types of activities that are forbidden in the Central ecological zone of the Baikal nature territory.” More simply, the decree allows further contamination of Lake Baikal by discharges form the well-known Baikal Paper Mill, which is owned by structures belonging to tycoon Oleg Deripaska, and the gradual transformation of the lake into a cesspool.

After the decree was published on the Бабр.Ру website, a poll called “What is Siberia’s Biggest Enemy” was conducted. Some 40,000 people participated in the poll and Putin emerged as the absolute victor gaining 41.5 percent of the respondents. Deripaska raked in 13.8 percent, and the Kremlin-backed United Russia party gained 13.6 percent.  It’s worth recalling that in 2006, while Putin was still president, he undertook a decision to move an oil pipeline running from eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean that was to pass close to Baikal further to the north, commenting that “if there is even an insignificant danger of contaminating Lake Baikal, then we, thinking of future generation, must do everything to not minimize but eliminate this danger.” But in 2010, Putin, as prime minister, ignored all public protests in his usual boorish manner, announcing that the problem, in his words, must be discussed “without noise and shrieks. At this, which is significant, he announced that Angara River flows into Baikal, and therefore discharges from Irkutsk enterprises were far more dangerous than those coming from the Baikal Paper Mill.

Attempts to argue against the government decree in the Supreme Court were unsuccessful, and in May of 2010 the Baikal Paper Mill conducted a test batch of viscous bleached cellulose in the framework of the open-loop water cycle, and renewed the work at the beginning of July, beginning to produce bleached sulphate cellulose in industrial volumes.

Protests against the renewed actions of the mill continue, and meanwhile, according to the Goldman Prize-winning activist group Baikal Environmental Wave, a new attempt against Lake Baikal is being readied. Andrei Dementev Russia’s deputy minister of trade and Industry – also a board member of the Baikal Paper Mill –  is playing a chief role in this. He is presently trying to push through an idea that it is possible to pour much more poison into lake Baikal, and apparently is counting on the fact that government authorities cannot thoroughly understand accepted world environmental norms.

In a letter to First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Dementiev asks for a review of the possibilities of introducing changes to Ministry of Natural Resources order No 63 from March 5 2010 “on the establishment normatively defined allowable impact on the unique Lake Baikal ecosystem, the enumeration of harmful substances, including substances categorized as especially dangerous, highly dangerous, dangerous  and moderately dangerous for the unique Lake Baikal ecosystem.” Namely, he proposed allowing the Baikal Paper Mill to raise its emissions of dangerous chemicals by 10 times, and in the case of organochlorides, by 10,000 times.

According to Dementiev letter, “the norms established by order are not achievable for industrial enterprises and exclude the possibility of the functioning of the Baikal Paper Mill and the Selengin Paper and Carton Mill.” Meanwhile, environmentalists note that according to Dementiev’s letter “The Selenga Paper and Carton Mill has long been switched to a system of closed-loop water cycle, which suggests absence of industrial waste discharges into surface water currents. Moreover the mill is situated not on the banks of the Baikal but on the Senga River. And in this way, an attempt to mislead First Deputy Prime Minister Sechin is in their opinion  is undertaken with one goal – to give the sinking Baikal Paper Mill the possibility to hold on for a little while longer. Any foundation for attempting to do this is lacking.”

Its worth noting that there is growing proof (that continues to grow) that the best solution to the problems would be to shut down the Baikal Paper Mill and to fulfil the already existing plans to help the resident local residents and the sustainable development of Southern Baikal.

None of the participants in the protests can understand why the Baikal Paper Mill was opened. Moreover, even the workers don’t understand it, and don’t believe it had any perspectives. At the same time, examples of alternative business are appearing in the region, and not just tourism. For example, a small workshop bottling Baikal water has appeared (several other workshops are being built).

But the Baikal Paper Mill digests huge sums, efforts, health and even peoples lives: According to bloggers, incidents and accidents became a common occurrence here in 2010. And it’s logical that another (preliminary) list of candidates to “enemy of Baikal” has been assembled.

They include:

Prime Minister Putin  because he signed Decree No 1 in spite of the frequent conclusions of scholars, appeals of environmentalists and Russian citizens.

Oligarch Oleg Deripaska (former owner of controlling stock in the Baikal Paper Mill) because he failed to transfer the plant to a closed water loop; because he drove the mill into bankruptcy; because he drove the situation to social explosion; because he initiated the renewal of the mill’s work on an open loop and because he washed his hands of it.

The government apparatus of the Russia Federation because it presented, in the best case, on-sided apparently unobjective material serving as the basis for the adoption of Decree No 1.

First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov because he didn’t carry out the decree of his boss to “facilitate the renewal of the production of cellulose at the Baikal Paper Mill on a closed water loop” and instead prepared Decree No 1, which permitted launching the mill in an open water loop regime.

Deputy Prime Minister Dementiev because he prepared Decree No 1 and because he is spearheading efforts to permit the Baikal Paper Mill to increase its emissions of dangerous chemicals by 10 times, and in the case of organochlorides, by 10,000 times.

First Deputy Prime Minister Sechin because he is attempting to allow the Baikal Paper Mill to increase its emissions of dangerous substances by 10 times, and in the case of organochlorides, by 10,000 times.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (specifically deputy minister Levy) because they agreed to the Decree No 1 project, despite its obvious contradictions to the federal law “On preserving Lake Baikal,” the federal law “On environmental protection,” and others, as well as the UNESCO convention on the preservation of world cultural and natural heritage sites.

A poll will establish which of these will emerge as the winners.