August 12, 2008

2 Fight to Save World’s Deepest Lake in Russia

BOLSHIYE KOTY, Russia - The world's oldest, deepest and biggest freshwater lake is growing warmer, dirtier and more crowded.

Lyubov Izmestieva is charting these insidious changes. Marina Rikhvanova is fighting them. And the fate of one of the world's rarest ecosystems, a turquoise jewel set in the vast Siberian taiga, hangs in the balance.

With more fresh water than the Great Lakes combined, and as home to 1,500 species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, Baikal has been called Sacred Sea, Pearl of Siberia, Galapagos of Russia.

But the pristine waters, a mile deep in some places, are threatened by polluting factories, a uranium enrichment facility, timber harvesting and, increasingly, Earth's warming climate. The struggle has turned nasty, with Ms. Rikhvanova, an environmental activist, claiming authorities set up her son into joining a violent attack on her group.

Tourists, most of them prosperous Russians, are flocking to the lake, filling the beaches, building vacation homes and changing the lake's ecology. Resorts are opening. There are more fishermen, hunters and boaters.

The lake's significance goes beyond Russia; environmentalists say its size and fragility make it a sort of test case for such bodies of fresh water around the world.

"Baikal is the greatest lake in the world," said Mr. Izmestieva, a biologist. "This is a priceless gift for everyone, whether you live in Bolshiye Koty or Florida."

About 20 to 30 million years ago, scientists believe, a rift in the Earth's crust created Baikal's 400-mile-long, sickle-shaped basin.

Today the lake contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water, enough to provide Earth's 7 billion people with six cups of water a day for the next 6,000 years.

Geologists come to study the formation of the Asian continent. Biologists probe such mysteries as how a lake 1,000 miles inland became home to the world's only true species of freshwater seals.

Last month two small, manned submarines reached the bottom of the lake to take soil and water samples. The 5,223-foot dive felljust short of a world record.

Baikal inspired the Soviet Union's environmental movement in the 1960s after scientists spoke out against Nikita Khrushchev's plans to build a pulp and paper factory on its shores.

Today Ms. Rikhvanova, who helped found the nonprofit group Baikal Ecological Wave, is still fighting to close the mill, which has created a dead zone miles wide in the lake and might be contaminating the seals.

A few years ago, her group led protests against a 2,700-mile oil pipeline, part of which would run along the lake's northern shores. The group's books were audited by authorities, its computers seized and its phones tapped - retaliation, she says, for fighting the pipeline.

In 2006, President Vladimir Putin ordered the pipeline rerouted, a rare victory for Russian environmentalists.

Ms. Rikhvanova, 47, says the victory demonstrates Baikal's potency as a symbol.

Now she's taking on Kremlin plans to build a uranium enrichment facility 60 miles west of the lake, which would produce nuclear fuel. Officials say the project would bring thousands of jobs to the poor region. Environmen-talists say it would threaten a natural wonder.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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