- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - For decades, it spewed chemicals and foul effluent into the pristine waters of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

For decades, environmentalists pushed for its closure, calling it a shameful blight on the world’s largest fresh water lake.

Now, 43 years after its construction, the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill is closing for good in a breakthrough for Russia’s environmental movement, which many believe began with the long battle over the factory.

The owner, Kontinental Management, said Friday that the plant, which temporarily halted production in October, will not restart operations, for financial and technological reasons. Shareholders, which include the federal government and the struggling industrial conglomerate Basic Element, will meet in coming weeks to decide exactly what to do with it, the company said.

“Unfortunately, time is already up for the (factory) and the plant will be never be able to resume production,” the company said in a statement posted on its Web site.

“It’s good news, of course, though it wasn’t completely unexpected,” said Marina Rikhvanova, a veteran activist who heads the environmental group, Baikal Wave.

Nestled in the vast wilderness of the Siberia’s southern taiga, Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, deepest and largest freshwater lake by volume, holding more water than all five North American Great Lakes combined.

Indigenous Siberians, such as the Evenki and the Buryats, have worshipped it for generations, eking subsistence livings from its fish and from the nerpa, the world’s only true freshwater seal.

Scientists have dedicated careers to studying the lake’s flora and fauna _ a mind boggling 1,500 species found nowhere else in the world _ or the lake’s depths, up to mile (1.6 kilometers) below the surface. Poets have dubbed it the Sacred Sea, Pearl of Siberia or the Galapagos of Russia.

That reverence and fascination with the lake helped galvanize opposition to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s orders to build the plant, in 1966. Soviet industrial planners looked to the unique quality of the lake’s waters and the surrounding forests, believing they could produce high-quality cellulose for airplane wheels and other uses.

But scientists who studied the lake warned that putting major industry on Baikal’s southern shoreline would irrevocably damage its ecology. Outspoken public protest that at the time was unprecedented for the Soviet Union as it slowly reformed.

“The plant, and Baikal _ it’s the home of the Russian ecological movement, where the social-ecological movement of what was then Soviet Union was born,” said Roman Vazhenkov, a Baikal expert with Greenpeace Russia.

But scientists’ warnings were ignored, and four decades later experts say the plant’s discharges have resulted in a more than 12 square mile (30 square kilometer) dead zone in the relatively shallow waters in the south.

In recent years, regional officials had grappled about what to do with the factory, but were stymied by the tax revenues it provided, the heat and electricity it generated for the town of Baikalsk and the employment it gave to thousands in an impoverished region.

Ultimately, it was the financial crisis now pummeling Russia’s economy _ and the plant’s majority owner, Basic Element _ that did what environmental groups failed to do.

In October, after months of increasing pressure from federal regulators and demands that it install a modern wastewater system, the plant temporarily stopped operations and the company warned that it might have to shut for good if more financing could not be found.

Kontinental Management said more than 2,000 people would lose their jobs.

Vazhenkov said despite the closure, too many questions about the future of the site remain.

“You can’t just take a lock, put in on the factory doors and walk away. There’s still a huge pile of ecological problems that need to be resolved,” he said. “It’s not the final conclusion to the story, though of course for Baikal it is indeed a very, very happy moment.”

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