From the Moscow Times
23 March 2010
By Vladimir Ryzhkov
At a pompous meeting of the board of regents of the Russian Geographic Society held on March 15, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his January decision to permit the reopening of the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills. In his words, Baikal’s problems should be resolved by the state and “without a lot of noise.” But if we ignore Putin’s advice and examine this question thoroughly from all sides, it becomes clear that Putin’s decision was completely incompetent.
The main argument for reopening the plant has been the desire to save jobs in Baikalsk, a small single-industry town built around the mill. But since 1966, when the mill first opened, it has been the main polluter of Lake Baikal. The mill sends about 5 tons of harmful emissions into the atmosphere annually, polluting up to 400 square kilometers of territory around Baikalsk, and builds up millions of tons of dangerous solid wastes along the shores of the lake.
There was a time when the plant was crucial to the town’s economy, employing 2,200 of the town’s 14,000 inhabitants. But the situation has fundamentally changed now. To restart the mills, 1,450 workers have been re-employed. What’s more, the local unemployment office listed only 700 people out of work in late January, and that number had decreased throughout last year at a time when the plant was not working.
After the mill was shut down in November 2008, many environmentalists, local businesses and environmentally conscious local residents thought the plant closure would be for good. As a result, the services sector began to rapidly develop in Baikalsk and surrounding areas, including hotels, cafes, restaurants, saunas, hostels and the Sobolinaya Mountain ski resort, all of which created hundreds of new jobs.
Baikalsk is an attractive location for developing tourism. It has good transportation links to and from the regional center of Irkutsk, as well as a mild climate and plenty of snow — excellent conditions for developing a ski-based tourist industry. Irkutsk regional authorities presented a development plan that would likely attract 1 million tourists annually after two special tourism zones on Baikal were completed. That would have created 10,000 new jobs for Baikalsk and the entire region.
But Putin’s decision to restart the paper mill will ruin all of these plans. During his skiing trip to Sobolinaya Mountain a few years ago, Putin himself complained about the intolerable, pungent stench coming from the plant’s smokestacks. Who in their right mind would want to spend their vacation skiing in a region where you can hardly breathe? Local residents suffer from a higher incidence of cancer and lower life expectancy than other Russians.
But those are far from being the only problems. Reopening the plant will deliver a fatal blow to a range of major investment projects based on the unique, pristine lake that contains one-fourth of the Earth’s fresh water supply. For example, a large bottling plant for drinking water to be drawn from Baikal has already been built in the town of Kultuk, 40 kilometers from Baikalsk. That plant can bottle 1 million liters of water per day. A Canadian company has invested tens of millions of dollars into the company, which alone would have created 200 jobs. In addition, five other bottling plants with a combined cost of $120 million had been expected to create 500 jobs in the region. One of those plants is slated to be built in Baikalsk. But now these investors are surely asking themselves, “Once the pulp and paper mills resume operations and start poisoning Lake Baikal, who is going to drink bottled water that is drawn from the lake, even if we claim that our water is filtered?”
Restarting the paper mill makes no economic sense either. The plant is highly unprofitable, its equipment is obsolete, and its technologies are outdated. The mill lost almost 800 million rubles ($27.3 million) in 2008. Could this be why the plant’s owner, Oleg Deripaska, is in such a hurry to sell 49 percent of the company’s shares to the Federal Property Management Agency and is proposing that the town of Baikalsk purchase 25.2 percent? If that happens, Russian taxpayers would be forced to cover the losses of the largest polluter of Lake Baikal.
Since 1996, Lake Baikal has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Now it could end up on the list of most-endangered World Heritage sites. More than 9,000 people have already added their names to a list on Greenpeace’s Russian web site for calling on the UNESCO secretary-general to protect Lake Baikal from the paper mill.
Putin’s decision to restart the paper mill was made in defiance of public opinion and the advice of his own ministers. On March 10, a coalition of environmental organizations founded “For Baikal!” and launched a large-scale campaign to close the paper and pulp mill forever. More than 40,000 people have already signed an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev posted on the coalition’s web site.
On the popular Siberian web site Babr.ru, more than 28,000 people have cast their votes for “the main enemy of Siberia,” with Putin receiving 31.1 percent of the votes, Oleg Deripaska 16.1 percent and United Russia 13.3 percent. Irkutsk Governor Dmitry Mezentsev and United Russia publicly support the reopening of the paper mill, and both suffered a humiliating defeat in the Irkutsk mayoral elections on March 14. On the web site of the Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resource Use, 97 percent of respondents were opposed to restarting the plant.
Putin’s unilateral decision to reopen the plant is a prime example of his “manual control” management style — or as he put it so nicely, making decisions “without a lot of noise.” Hundreds of incompetent decisions are made in the Kremlin and White House in precisely this “noiseless” fashion without public discussion or criticism. These decisions inflict irreversible damage to society, the economy, the environment and the country’s global prestige.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.