January 26, 2006

Scientists warn Russian oil pipe puts lake at risk

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A proposed Russian oil pipeline could
cause permanent damage to the unique wildlife of Lake Baikal
and must be stopped, scientists who conducted the state's
assessment of the plan said on Thursday.

The pipeline, due to run from Eastern Siberia to the
Pacific coast, would hook round the northern end of Baikal --
the world's deepest lake and home to hundreds of endemic
species including a rare fresh water seal.

State monopoly Transneft says it will take all possible
precautions to make the pipeline safe, but the scientists said
nothing could protect it from the frequent earthquakes that
afflict the zone and make the lake wider every year.

"No one can guarantee that there won't be an earthquake ...
and that cannot but pollute Baikal," said Gennady Chegasov, who
led a group of scientists that investigated the project for
Russia's environmental watchdog.

"No engineer can guarantee there won't be ruptures."

Baikal, called the "Jewel of Siberia," is sacred to Russian
environmentalists since protests over a proposed factory on its
shores sparked the birth of the country's green movement in
Soviet times.

Chegasov said his appraisal of the pipeline had yet to be
approved by managers of the Rostekhnadzor environmental
watchdog. If they back his assessment, Transneft will have to
seek a new route for the $11.5 billion line.

He feared vested interests might cause his report to be
quashed, considering how much money was at stake, and had
decided to take the unprecedented step of going public with the
report before its approval.

Officials frequently accuse activists who oppose big state
projects of trying to sabotage Russian interests, and in July
President Vladimir Putin himself said green groups trying to
stop the pipeline were in the pay of foreign competitors.

Chegasov said he could rebut such allegations in court.

He said he understood the pipeline was necessary to
diversify sales of Russia's key export, but said even the money
earned from new markets in China and Japan could not justify
the risk of polluting Baikal.

"By not building this further away from the lake we are
saving $2 billion but we are risking the trillions of dollars
that Baikal is worth," said Sergei Kolesnikov, who represents
one of the regions near Baikal in the State Duma lower house of
parliament and is vice-chairman of its science committee.

"For the sake of $2 billion we are risking the future."

Irina Maximova, a specialist on Baikal from the Russian
Academy of Scientists, said the lake had 3,000 endemic species
and was renowned for the purity of its water.

Any oil spill would destroy most species since they live in
shallow water, she said, and particularly harm the Baikal