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LYNN NEARY, host:

Now, we're going to visit Lake Baikal in Russia. It's in southern Siberia and it's the earth's oldest and deepest freshwater lake. It's as large as the state of Maryland and holds 20 percent of the planet's freshwater supply. It's home to a number of rare species, including the world's only freshwater seal.

Given all this, it's no surprise that the United Nations has put the lake on its world heritage list. What is surprising is that a dirty old paper mill there has been reopened. The reason given is to create jobs in tough economic times, but there may be more to it than that. NPR's David Greene has our story.

(Soundbite of bubbling)

DAVID GREENE: You're listening to 20,000 leagues under the sea, Russian style.

Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, last summer, climbed into a submarine and dove to the bottom of Lake Baikal.

Mr. PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Looks clean and beautiful, he said. The voyage convinced Putin that Baikal is practically pollution-free, so he announced, soon after, that the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill could reopen and bring its workers back.

Built in 1966, the place long dumped chlorides and wastewater into Baikal. A new environmental law in Russia forced upgrades that proved too costly and the place shut down two years ago. But Putin has now amended that law. The mill switched the lights on in November, the paper-bleaching process that spills wastewater should get going this month.

Mr. ROMAN VAZHENKOV (Director, Baikal Program, Greenpeace): It's just plain stupid.

GREENE: That's Roman Vazhenkov who directs the Baikal program at Greenpeace in Moscow. He didn't enjoy the prime minister's submarine ride.

Mr. VAZHENKOV: You cannot see the chemical substances that are in the water, like you cannot see radiation. It's the same thing, like standing near a nuclear bomb saying, oh, I don't see anything.

GREENE: And the idea of a Russia leader threatening Baikal is disappointing, he said. After all, the Soviet government taught him, as a boy, to love that lake.

Mr. VAZHENKOV: You can call it propaganda, but still, teachers try to put in our hands that there are a few things that we must be proud about our country, and Baikal is one of them. You cannot just describe it. I think you have to see and feel it. There's a tradition to - when you come to the lake, put your hand into the water and say hello. We call it Grandfather Baikal.

(Soundbite of water running)

GREENE: I drove down to Lake Baikal in the morning, still totally iced. To find some actual flowing water, you have to come upstream a little bit along one of the rivers. But it's really natural beauty here, but also an industrial feel along the shoreline. A train runs up and down the shoreline pretty often, and one of the communities here is the city of Baikalsk. About 16,000 people, and this is where this old Soviet pulp and paper mill has been standing for years.

Ms. ANELYA VILKEVICHYUTE: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Bread, this is our bread, 68-year-old Anelya Vilkevichyute kept saying to me. When that mill closed, more than a thousand people were fired, she said. And what? They all went mushroom picking because we want to eat.

Officials at the mill refuse to let us in, but you can see the old stacks from everywhere in town. In addition to the toxic wastewater, the mill spews sulfates into the air.

Eduard Markulov said environmentalists exaggerate. He and his wife were among 1,400 employees who returned to the mill in November.

Mr. EDUARD MARKULOV: No one proved we polluted, he said. I am a native. We had fish here and we still have them. We used to drink the water and we still drink it now.

Baikalsk's Mayor Valery Pintayev promised that scientists will make sure Baikal isn't harmed.

Mayor VALERY PINTAYEV (Baikalsk, Russia): (Russian spoken)

GREENE: With the mill closed, I saw a dead town, the mayor said. There were no lights on houses. People ruined themselves drinking. They stood at my window demanding jobs, and now the social tension is gone. Maybe, the mayor said, another four or five years could be squeezed out of the mill, then he spoke to a larger problem.

Mr. PINTAYEV: (Russian spoken)

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

Mr. PINTAYEV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: In many ways, this mill is one dirty symbol of Russia's troubled economy. Across outlying Russia there are cities just like Baikal, places where the Soviet government built a single factory that seemed to employ everyone in town. Now, those cities are old and poor. Moscow hasn't figured out what to do with them.

Mr. VASSILY ZABELLO: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Vassily Zabello is a pensioner in Baikalsk. He retired from the mill after 26 years. Unlike most people in Baikalsk, he thinks the mill should have stayed closed.

Mr. ZABELLO: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Reopening the dirty old mill, he said, shows a great enormous country acknowledging our helplessness.

Outside Baikalsk itself, there's not much support for the mill and a lot more questions about the prime minister's motivations. Maybe, the thinking goes, Putin just wants to help the wealthy and well-connected owners of the plant.

Unidentified Man: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: That was the message at several recent rallies in the closest major city, Irkutsk. People demanded the mill close and for Putin to resign.

Ms. JENNIE SUTTON (Founder, Baikal Environmental Wave): There were people of all ages coming out with blue balloons to symbolize the purity of Baikal's waters, and it was a wonderful demonstration.

GREENE: That's Jennie Sutton. She's a founder of the group Baikal Environmental Wave. She moved from Britain in the '70s and she and her organization have spent several decades fighting to protect the lake. Surprising as it sounds, Sutton said, if having an environmental debate with Soviet leaders was difficult, it's worse under Putin.

Ms. SUTTON: You don't know what you're up against, basically. You feel as if you're up against forces that don't play by the rules.

GREENE: Speaking of that, federal security forces recently raided Baikal Environmental Wave. They seized the group's laptops, insisting they had illegal material.

Laptops or not, Sutton is still hoping for more rallies, but...

Ms. SUTTON: It's difficult for them to keep doing this when they feel - and this is what is happening - that there is no response to this.

GREENE: Next stop, Sutton said, is the United Nations. On its world heritage list, the U.N. described Baikal as rich, unusual, of exceptional value to evolutionary science - the Galapagos of Russia. Maybe, Sutton said, the U.N. can get that message through the Moscow.

Ms. SUTTON: We cannot afford to lose this fight.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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