BAIKALSK, Russia — The Soviets built the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill during the Cold War to produce "super cord" for military planes. They chose Baikal because of the purity of its water, which is so low in minerals that it approaches distilled water.
By the time the mill was constructed in 1966, its "super cord" apparently was obsolete, but the mill continued to work. Some sources say it still produces a small amount of "strategic" cellulose, used in Russian and Belarusian rockets.
In October 2008, shortly after announcing that a closed wastewater system for production of unbleached cellulose had been created, the mill abruptly shut down. The management blamed the global financial crisis, which brought down cellulose prices and made production unprofitable.
Moscow refused the mill's request to resume dumping waste into Baikal to produce more profitable bleached cellulose. Environmentalists who'd been fighting to close the mill for decades rejoiced.
The question of what to do with the mill and its workers remained unsolved, however. The mill's demise brought social unrest and tension to Baikalsk, a "single-enterprise" town of 17,000 that grew up to service the mill. After BPPM laid off more than 2,000 of its remaining workers, they had to protest and go to court to get their back wages and salary.
Baikal Environmental Wave, a local environmental group, became one of the forces pushing the government to create new businesses in Baikalsk and come up with a program to clean up the accumulated waste.
One of the group's co-chairmen, Marina Rikhvanova, invested the money she received as a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize in small-business initiatives in Baikalsk.
"People connect their future with tourism," she said. "At no demonstrations by former workers did they ask the government to re-open the mill. They only asked for jobs."
The regional government proposed to include the town in a federally sponsored "special economic zone," with the aim of developing tourism.
Baikalsk has a decent ski resort, and many residents make money by renting apartments to skiers, but at one anti-mill protest, opponents said the smell of rotten eggs from the mill would hinder the development of a successful tourism industry.
(Agarkova is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.)
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