January 20, 2010

Putin Reopens Controversial Plant On Lake Baikal

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has issued a decree to reopen the controversial Baikal pulp and paper mill, which has worried environmentalists for 25 years.

Putin's decree, signed on January 13 but made public on Monday, reverses an earlier ban on the production of cellulose paper and storage of waste around Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake.

Greenpeace said it was deeply concerned by the plans and that it would ask Medvedev to overturn Putin's decision.

Roman Vazhenkov, head of Greenpeace's Lake Baikal campaign, says, "This decree is a crime because to protect the interests of one particular oligarch, Putin is casting aside Russia's entire net of ecological laws."

"To allow chemical wastes to be dumped there: What else can you call it but a crime?" he added.

Mr. Putin visited the plant in late July 2009 and made a four-hour dive to the bottom of Lake Baikal last August, declaring the lake "in good condition, and almost unpolluted." He said then that production at the plant could be restarted.

Igor Chestin, head of the WWF in Russia, believes the paper mill has now become less crucial and ecotourism has developed as a competing source of jobs.

He says, "In the year and three months since the factory closed the situation has changed. People have already begun to find work in other spheres, specifically in tourism and hospitality."

Both Chestin and Vazhenov vowed to appeal to UNESCO to add Lake Baikal to its list of World Heritage site in danger.

If resumed, the plant would be Deripaska's second business "saved" by Putin. Last summer, he also intervened to resume cement production in the northwestern town of Pikalyovo.

In late December, the Baikal mill started testing its equipment, and produced the first test batch of unbleached pulp last week.

Environmental groups have long attacked the mill, saying it threatens the lake, which harbors 1,500 species of animals and plants, including a unique type of freshwater seal.


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