Zinc Deposit Threatens Lake Baikal

LAKE BAIKAL, Buryatia — Green trees sway on the hilly horizon, rainbows pierce Lake Baikal's gray waters and waves pound a pathless shore.

The stark beauty of the world's deepest and oldest lake is under threat, environmentalists say, because it lies downstream from a rich source of zinc.

The proximity has opened up a debate pitting industrialists and job-hungry officials in Siberia against environmentalists and government agencies in Moscow.

The Kholodninskoye deposit, which sits in a watershed flowing straight into Baikal, is believed to be the planet's third-largest lead and zinc field.

MBC Resources, a subsidiary of privately owned Metropol group, has a license to develop Kholodninskoye, which has an estimated 13.3 million tons of zinc and 2 million tons of lead. It has drafted a plan to develop the field and other metals in the region at an estimated cost of $4 billion.

But environmentalists in the republic of Buryatia, lying on the eastern shore of Baikal, said development would despoil the biggest freshwater mass on earth — already threatened by tourism and other industries. "For us right now, this is problem No. 1," said Sergei Shapkhayev, director of the Buryat/Baikal Land Use Program in Ulan Ude.

"The geo-hydrological structure there is very complex, lots of underground springs, subsoil water at different temperatures that would increase tailings volumes into the lake," he said.

Tailings are unrecoverable mining waste discharged as slurry.

In July, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry proposed a ban on developing half of the Kholodninskoye deposit, saying mining would damage the lake.

The government of Buryatia, which borders some 60 percent of the lake, hopes development will bring investment and jobs, and has opposed the proposed ban. Buryatia is keen to promote Baikal as a tourist destination, but it also wants mining development.

Mikhail Slipenchuk, Metropol's general director, said not developing the deposits would constitute a missed opportunity. "This is 20 percent of Russia's [zinc] reserves. If we cross it off the list, Russia will be the poorer for it," he said.

But zinc prices have been sliding on weak demand and global oversupply, and the metal is now trading down almost 25 percent this year.

Shapkhayev, the environmentalist, said unregulated logging and careless construction for the tourism industry were already causing damage that would only be intensified by mining.

"Russian ministries think, mistakenly, that up to 2 million tourists will come here, and that they need to build five-star hotels, mountain ski resorts … and they dole out a large share of federal money for building the infrastructure," he said.

Shapkhayev said only around 20,000 tourists — half from abroad — come to Baikal annually. Construction firms pop up seasonally to build poorly constructed lodgings with federal money, then disappear without paying their workers. "Until we come to terms with corruption, those kinds of problems will happen more and more often," he said.