Backward steps at Lake Baikal

A policy U-turn in Russia once again gives an industrial behemoth the freedom to dump toxic waste in the country’s greatest lake. Wang Qiuxia and Zhang Yadong report.

Early this year, Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin overturned a nine-year-old ban on dumping toxic industrial waste in Lake Baikal. This will see a paper mill that was closed down in 2008 reopening and, once again, discharging pollution into the lake’s waters.

Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake and the largest by volume and its aquatic life is among the world’s most varied and rare. But this natural treasure has been under constant threat from the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill. In April 2010, with representatives from four environmental groups – Green Beagle, Green Longjiang, Beiyun Waterkeeper and Rivers without Boundaries – we travelled to Baikal to study the local environment.

Environmental NGO Baikal Environmental Wave is located in Irkutsk, Russia. Since the organisation was founded in the 1990s, the all-women NGO has been fighting Lake Baikal’s biggest polluter – the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill. On January 29 this year, the group was “looted” by the government, with local police confiscating office computers in a strike against “pirate software”.

“It was just an excuse,” says Marina Rikhvanova, the organisation’s leader. “They refused even to look at our software licenses. The government’s aim was to stop us working, to force us to stop action against Decision No. 1.”

Decision No. 1
is the revision of regulations on human activity in the Central Ecological Zone of Lake Baikal, signed by Putin on January 13 this year. It rescinds the ban on cellulose and paper manufacturing by firms unable to treat their own wastewater and allows the dumping, burying or even burning of waste on the shores of the lake. This move gave the green light to Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, the largest polluter on the lake, to resume production.

Baikal, known as the Pearl of Siberia, appears like a crescent moon in the mountains of Russia’s eastern border. When our group arrived in mid-April, the lake was still covered with a thick layer of ice, reflecting the clear blue of the peaceful sky. But between the lake and the dark green mountains stood two huge chimneys pouring out fumes and blanketing the area in haze. This is the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill; the blemish on the pearl.

The mill was founded in 1966, when it produced mostly rayon for use in fighter-jet tyres. After the cold war, production shifted to viscose fibre and paper pulp, 90% of which was exported to China. Russia’s richest oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, has a 25.1% stake in the plant (he used to have majority ownership but sold a quarter of the business to pulp and paper firm Continental Invest in March). The Russian government holds the remainder. In 2008 poor management and pollution forced the plant, which could not afford to comply with new rules introduced in 2001, to close. It remained shut until early this year, when preparations began to restart production.

The plant has caused massive damage to the local environment and public health. When in production mode, it pumps up to
120,000 cubic metres of wastewater into the lake and releases thousands of tonnes of waste gas every day. To date, it has produced a total of six million tonnes of solid waste. Chlorides are the main pollutant in the wastewater, with 130 square kilometres of the lake bed now thought to be affected.

A Greenpeace investigation into the environmental impact on the town of Baikalsk in 2003
found that dioxins – highly toxic compounds – were present not only in the lake’s plants and wildlife, but also in locally produced milk, butter and other foods, at levels two to three times higher than those considered safe. Dioxins and furan (a toxic liquid) in the wastewater are broken down extremely slowly, and easily accumulate in organisms. This process is believed to have been responsible for wiping out huge numbers of Baikal seals in the 1980s and 1990s, with the chemicals damaging their immune and nervous systems.

Some also believe cancer and mortality rates have risen in Baikalsk – and that the mill is to blame. “We asked the government to publish data on cancer over the last few decades, but they refused,” says Rikhvanova.

Two years after the mill finally closed, as local government, NGOs and researchers were working on solutions to the environmental and employment problems left behind by the plant, Putin paved the way for it to re-open. While protection of the lake is, of course, very important, jobs and livelihoods also need to be considered, he said.

But can equipment and techniques dating back to the 1960s really provide a decent living for the locals?

For long, the paper mill was Baikalsk’s only significant source of revenue. At one point it employed 2,200 people. In 2008 it accounted for 84% of local GDP, 60% of tax income and employed 1,300 people (including non-locals) according to a local government report. But it has not been paying wages for some time, and workers have found other livelihoods. During our trip, we happened across a protest outside the local government offices. Former employees of the mill were demanding redundancy payments to use as capital for new ventures – they did not want to go back to the mill, they said.

Official statistics say that 45% of the mill’s workforce came from the local area when it shut down in 2008 and most were around the age of 40. After the mill closed, some families left to find work elsewhere. By 2009, the number of former mill workers still out of work had fallen to 551.

In spite of this shift, Putin swept away the major legal obstacle to the plant’s reopening. And since the beginning of the year, the mill has been busily preparing to re-start production. The first thing the management did was to wall off the waste outlets, meaning changes cannot be observed from the outside. A written request from our group to visit the manufacturing and waste-treatment facilities was also turned down on all sorts of pretexts.

At one point, the manager’s flustered secretary told us there had been “an explosion”. This time it was not an excuse. On April 21, at the town hall two kilometres away, we could smell an odour from the plant and see a yellowy-green haze in the air. One of Rikhvanova’s sources told her the mill had purchased chlorine gas to bleach pulp. But old equipment had caused one of the cylinders to explode and gas to escape.

And that is not all. There is evidence showing that, during trial operations, the plant was secretly releasing wastewater. When Baikal Wave informed the local government that it planned to monitor the waste outlet, they were told it was private and could not be tested. Soon after, the police came and confiscated their computers.

The fight is still going. Russian NGOs have joined forces with Greenpeace and WWF to form Baikal Activity, a network aimed at protecting the lake and stopping the paper mill through worldwide petitioning. Russian scientists have also drafted a letter to Putin, calling for a ban on paper-making on Lake Baikal.

Meanwhile, the old 1960s factory is calmly spewing out smoke, while sales staff travel to China to find new buyers for its products. As soon as that happens, production will start, no matter who stands in the way.

Wang Qiuxia is a project officer at Beijing- based environmental organisation Green Beagle.

Zhang Yadong is the director-general of Heilongjiang environmental organisation “Green Longjiang” and China coordinator of Rivers without Boundaries.

Homepage image by Wang Qiuxia