Russians Debate Fate Of Lake: Jobs Or Environment?

Lake Baikal in southern Siberia i i

hide captionRussia's Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, is roughly the size of Maryland. It's home to one-fifth of the world's freshwater supply and to unique species, including a freshwater seal. The United Nations refers to Baikal as Russia's "Galapagos." Now, environmentalists say it is under threat after the Russian government ordered the reopening of a paper mill on the lake's shore.

David Greene/NPR
Lake Baikal in southern Siberia

Russia's Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, is roughly the size of Maryland. It's home to one-fifth of the world's freshwater supply and to unique species, including a freshwater seal. The United Nations refers to Baikal as Russia's "Galapagos." Now, environmentalists say it is under threat after the Russian government ordered the reopening of a paper mill on the lake's shore.

David Greene/NPR

Tough economic times have forced Russia into a difficult decision: To save jobs, is it worth risking an environmental treasure?

Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia near the Mongolian border, is the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Roughly the size of Maryland, Baikal holds one-fifth of the planet's unfrozen fresh water supply.

The lake is included on the United Nations' World Heritage List, which describes it as Russia's own "Galapagos" for its unique ecosystem, including the habitat for a rare freshwater seal.

Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill in 2003 i i

hide captionRussian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the reopening of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill (shown here in 2003). He said employment opportunities superseded ecological concerns. The Soviet-era mill spilled toxic wastewater into Lake Baikal for four decades before it was shut down in 2008.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill in 2003

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the reopening of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill (shown here in 2003). He said employment opportunities superseded ecological concerns. The Soviet-era mill spilled toxic wastewater into Lake Baikal for four decades before it was shut down in 2008.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists have battled for decades to protect the lake — and they have suffered a major setback.

The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, a Soviet-era mill that spilled toxic wastewater into Baikal for four decades, has reopened. The mill shut down in 2008 — presumably for good.

But when it resumed production in November in the city of Baikalsk, 1,400 people — nearly 9 percent of the population — suddenly had their jobs back.

It's the latest sign of a vexing problem facing the Russian government. In the Soviet economy, many midsized cities were built around a single plant or industry. Especially in outlying areas, those cities haven't discovered a new future. And when their lone industry struggles or shuts down, an entire community all but dies.

Order To Reopen Mill Came From The Top

Last summer, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did his own version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, climbing aboard a mini-submarine to venture to the bottom of Lake Baikal.

"I could see with my own eyes — and scientists can confirm — Baikal is in good condition and there is practically no pollution," Putin said after emerging. "We'll listen to environmentalists. But our task is to preserve nature, and also think about the people who live and work here."

An environmental law had forced the Baikal mill to make costly upgrades, which it was unable to do in a recession. That's why the mill closed in 2008.

Putin proposed amendments in the environmental law, allowing the mill to operate as always and paving the way for the lights to come back on.

Since November, the mill has been at partial capacity. But later in May, the mill is expected to resume the paper-bleaching process that spills out chlorides.

Valery Pintayev, Baikalsk's mayor and a former employee of the paper mill

hide captionValery Pintayev, Baikalsk's mayor, is a former employee of the paper mill. He supports the mill's reopening, but with close monitoring of its impact on the lake, and for only four or five years.

David Greene/NPR

Roman Vazhenkov directs the Baikal program at Greenpeace in Moscow and did not enjoy the prime minister's underwater excursion.

"It's just plain stupid," Vazhenkov says. "You cannot see the chemical substances in the water, like you can't see radiation. It's the same thing as standing near a nuclear bomb and saying, 'Well, I don't see anything.' "

Vazhenkov adds that the idea of a Russian leader threatening Lake Baikal is disappointing, since the Soviet government taught him as a boy to love that lake.

"Call it propaganda," the 33-year-old environmentalist says. "Teachers tried to put in our heads that there were few things to be proud of in our country. And Baikal was one of them."

Majority In Area Support Mill

It is a breathtaking place. On a recent visit, the massive lake, 400 miles long and 50 miles across in places, is still mostly frozen. Snowcapped mountains ring much of the lake. For many Russians, visiting the lake is a religious experience.

The smokestacks of the paper mill are an eyesore. That fact is not lost on Baikalsk's mayor, Valery Pintayev, who is trying to develop tourism in the area.

Nevertheless, when the mill closed, the mayor says, "I saw a dead town."

Vassily Zabello, Baikalsk resident and former mill worker i i

hide captionVassily Zabello lives in Baikalsk and retired from the paper mill after working there for 26 years. Standing in front of the mill, he says he believes the Russian government can find a better way to improve the local economy, rather than forcing an old mill to reopen.

David Greene/NPR
Vassily Zabello, Baikalsk resident and former mill worker

Vassily Zabello lives in Baikalsk and retired from the paper mill after working there for 26 years. Standing in front of the mill, he says he believes the Russian government can find a better way to improve the local economy, rather than forcing an old mill to reopen.

David Greene/NPR

"There were no lights on in houses. People ruined themselves, drinking. They stood at my window demanding jobs. Now, the social tension is gone," he says.

Pintayev says scientists should monitor the impact on the lake closely, and he says the facility should only be open for four, maybe five years. He pleaded with Russia's government to help the city eventually move away from its past.

"We're living and working on old yeast from the Soviet economy," he says. "You see, we haven't done anything new. My dear friend, is that right?"

Officials at the mill refused requests for an interview.

Around Baikalsk, support for the mill is strong.

"This is our bread," 68-year-old Anelya Vilkevichyute says. "When that mill closed, several thousand people were fired. And what? They all went mushroom-picking, because we want to eat."

Adds Eduard Markulov, a mill employee: "No one proved we pollute. I am a native. We had fish here and we still have it. We used to drink the water. We drink it now the same way."

But Vassily Zabello, who retired from the paper mill after 26 years of work, says the place is harming Baikal in invisible ways. He accuses Moscow of neglecting cities such as Baikalsk, and he says bringing a 44-year-old mill back from the dead amounts to a "great, enormous country acknowledging our helplessness."

Environmentalists in Moscow protest reopening of Baikalsk paper mill i i

hide captionEnvironmentalists protest in Moscow in March against the government's decision to reopen the Baikalsk paper mill on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Environmentalists in Moscow protest reopening of Baikalsk paper mill

Environmentalists protest in Moscow in March against the government's decision to reopen the Baikalsk paper mill on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Ominous Feeling Among Environmentalists

Three hours away in Irkutsk, the closest large city, protesters have staged several rallies, demanding the mill close and calling for Putin's resignation. There are suspicions that Putin may have acted just to help the wealthy and well-connected owners of the mill.

Among environmentalists, there is an ominous feeling — that this may be irreversible, that the lake could be under duress for many more years, after the future was beginning to seem bright.

Jennie Sutton is a founder of the group Baikal Environmental Wave. She moved from Britain in the 1970s, and she and her organization have spent several decades fighting to protect the lake. Surprising as it sounds, Sutton says, if having an environmental debate with Soviet leaders was difficult, it's worse under Putin.

"You don't know what you're up against. Basically you feel you're up against forces that don't play by the rules," Sutton says.

Federal security forces recently raided offices of Baikal Environmental Wave. They seized the group's laptops, insisting they had illegal material.

Next stop, Sutton says, is the United Nations. On its World Heritage List, the U.N. describes Baikal as rich, unusual and "of exceptional value to evolutionary science." Maybe, Sutton says, the U.N. can get that message through to Moscow.

"We cannot afford to lose this fight," she says.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: