BAIKALSK, Russia — The future of 20 percent of the world's supply of pure fresh water is in jeopardy because a surprise decree by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will allow a heavily polluting pulp mill to reopen on the southern shore of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia.
Magnificent, almost pristine Lake Baikal, the "Pearl of Siberia," is a source of national pride and awe, an icon for the Russian environmental movement, a World Heritage Site and the only natural area in Russia that's protected by its own law. Many locals consider the enormous lake — at 12,248 square miles, it's the size of Maryland and Delaware combined — sacred. Between its size, its 5,380-foot depth and its remarkable biodiversity, the lake's fate has global significance.
The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill is the only industrial enterprise that dumped waste directly into the lake, and the fight against its construction gave birth to the Russian environmental movement and emboldened public figures to speak out against the Soviet state.
Using chlorine to produce bleached cellulose, BPPM discharged as much as 4 million cubic feet of toxic waste into Lake Baikal annually. More than 6 million tons of solid waste accumulated in huge open-air pits near Baikal's shore, in an active earthquake zone. The estimated costs of cleaning it up run into the millions of dollars.
The Russian government tried for almost 20 years to halt pulp production and convert the mill to other uses. In 2000, as Russia's president, Putin ordered BPPM "to end discharge of toxic wastes into Baikal at the earliest possible date," and in 2007 he declared the lake a national treasure and moved a proposed oil pipeline beyond its watershed.
The next year, the Russian government prohibited the production of pulp and paper on Baikal without a closed wastewater cycle.
"If there is even the smallest, tiniest chance of polluting Baikal, then we must think of future generations," he declared. "We must do everything to make sure this danger is not just minimized, but eliminated."
Last summer, Putin came to Baikal and took a dive to the bottom of the world's deepest lake in a mini-submarine. Upon emerging, Putin declared Baikal to be "in good condition." Then, however, he declared that the lake was almost unpolluted and hinted that the shuttered mill might reopen.
Putin's change of heart came as a surprise, and opponents of his January decree say it's a shortsighted attempt to protect the business interests of one wealthy and well-connected Russian oligarch at the expense of a unique and precious ecosystem.
Oleg Deripaska, described as close to the Kremlin who saw his fortune dwindle in the financial crisis, owns 51 percent of BPPM's shares, and the Russian government owns the rest.
Environmentalists began to mobilize almost immediately, claiming that Putin's decision is illegal under Russian and international law and asking the United Nations Economic and Social Council to decide whether Baikal should be considered endangered.
More than 34,000 people have signed a petition to Medvedev on a popular Irkutsk Internet news site alone, and late last month, hundreds of people in Irkutsk braved the Siberian winter to protest Putin's decree.
As environmental groups across Russia raised the alarm, Irkutsk police raided Baikal Environmental Wave, a local environmental group that protested Putin's decree, on suspicion that it was using pirated computer software. No one believed that, however.
"Two of the four policemen were from the Center for Fighting Extremism," the group said. "They had a camera and asked us provocative questions, for example, 'Do you participate in anti-government demonstrations?' As they took a photograph of our student volunteer's identification card, they told her that her career was over."
Putin's new amendments to the Law on Lake Baikal allow the production of cellulose, paper and carton without a closed wastewater system, as well as the storage and burning of waste on Baikal's shores.
Environmentalists say the mill, built in 1966 and closed in 2008, shouldn't be allowed to resume operations without an independent investigation of the existing conditions, and they point to the fact that two years ago the mill was at the epicenter of a strong earthquake.
Former workers report that because the owner didn't invest in maintenance and repair, the mill's equipment is dangerously worn out. Even a pro-mill representative of the Baikalsk city council who came to a news conference organized by local environmentalists described the mill as "a house that needs to be torn down that someone just decided to put siding on."
The current director of BPPM said the enterprise would be "even more environmentally sound in the future than it was in the past." The mill's owners, however, recently admitted that the closed wastewater system never functioned properly, and said they'd need another three years to upgrade it.
The workers' trade union, however, reports that the mill is signing contracts for only three to seven months of work, and critics say Putin acted mainly to give more budget money to Deripaska and to give him a chance to sell the mill.
"I am sure that the mill will never work," said Vladimir Naumov, the president of a local investment fund and the founder of a charity fund called Baikal 3000. "Otherwise they can write off Siberia and Baikal entirely, because no one lives here, and no one cares."
(Elena Agarkova was born in Moscow, received her bachelor's degree in political science from Barnard College and graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2001. She was a Legal Fellow at the Berman Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law. She clerked for Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, and practiced commercial litigation at the New York office of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP. The Institute of Current World Affairs provides promising individuals with an opportunity to develop a deep understanding of an issue, country, or region outside the United States and to share that understanding with a wider public.)
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