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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Wants Baikal Polluter Charged

Lawmakers announced Friday they would ask for a criminal investigation into the pollution of Lake Baikal f the latest offensive in a long-running battle to safeguard the world's largest body of freshwater.

Lake Baikal, in the Irkutsk region of eastern Siberia, contains some 20 percent of the world's fresh water and is home to 1,500 species not found anywhere else in the world. But its fragile ecology is threatened by the illegal dumping of chemical waste, spewed from the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill.

Chairwoman of the State Duma ecology committee Tamara Zlotnikova said Friday she has asked Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov to launch a criminal investigation into the plant's activities.

"Lake Baikal is a world treasure," Zlotnikova said at a news conference. "Yet waste continues to be dumped with impunity, with the permission of local authorities."

Every year, the Baikalsk mill pumps some 200,000 cubic tons of processed waste, including cellulose and chloride, into the lake. As the pollution continues unchecked, rare plant life and organisms that can only survive in the world's purest water are becoming extinct, said Roman Bukalov, director of Greenpeace's campaign to protect Baikal.

In addition, some 10 million tons of solid chemical waste is stockpiled on the plant's site. This poses a serious environmental danger in what is a high-risk earthquake zone, Bukalov said.

The Duma initiative is the latest in a 30-year fight by environmentalists to preserve the lake, which since 1996 has been recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage site.

Zlotnikova said the plant's continued operation violates a host of international and domestic laws.

Despite countless legislative attempts to stop the Baikalsk mill pumping waste into the lake, the dumping itself is legal.

However, Russian law states that whoever is responsible for inflicting environmental damage must pay for it to be cleaned up. The Baikalsk mill has never paid any compensation. The damage inflicted to the lake by the plant in the last four years alone is estimated at $3.5 billion, Bukalov said. The plant has been operating since the 1960s. Environmentalists welcomed Zlotnikova's move, saying she has a good chance of getting the case to court. Skuratov's office could not be reached for comment.

Yury Udodov, chairman of the Irkutsk ecological committee, warned on Friday, however, that there could be serious repercussions for the local community from a criminal investigation.

"Four thousand people work at this plant, and 40,000 more in the area are dependent on the plant's taxes," Udodov said in an interview Friday. "Changes have to be made in a civilized manner."

Since 1987 the Soviet and later Russian governments have been pledging to convert the factory to other, less harmful, forms of production. The promises have never been honored.

Udodov backs a less radical suggestion put forward by the head of the State Committee for the Environment, Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, who wants to set a precedent by enforcing environmental law against the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill in the arbitration court.

Obviously unable to pay the massive compensation for environmental damage, the mill would then be declared bankrupt and would revert to state control. In state hands, the mill could more readily be converted to manufacturer environmentally-friendly products.

The Russian government is under increasing pressure from the international community to clean up its act over Baikal after UNESCO decided earlier this year that Moscow was not honoring its commitments.

In 1996, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization presented the government with six recommendations that Russia undertook to fulfill. Among the recommendations were the establishment of a Lake Baikal law, the cessation of logging in the area, conversion of the plant and a monitoring procedure.

When a representative from the Natural Resources Ministry went to a UNESCO evaluation meeting in Paris in June, he produced a letter that claimed the environmental situation at Baikal had improved.

But environmentalists presented their own findings to the meeting, showing that the government has done nothing, and that Lake Baikal's ecological situation continues to steadily deteriorate because of the plant.

As a result of the Paris meeting, the UNESCO World Heritage Fund has given Russia until December to find a solution. If it fails, Lake Baikal will be upgraded to the status of an endangered site.

"This is a very rare and serious thing," Bukalov said. "Russia will be violating an international convention."

Lake Baikal is, for now at least, one of only three World Heritage sites in Russia. The other two are the volcanoes of the far eastern Kamchatka peninsula, and the forests of the Komi republic.