Sunday, January 24, 2010

Putin OKs Lake Baikal Dumping

On Tuesday Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing a massive paper mill to resume dumping its wastewater into Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The OAO Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill shut down in October 2008 after environmental authorities ordered the plant to install a closed-loop system for their industrial runoff to protect the pristine waters of Lake Baikal – the world’s largest and deepest body of fresh water (estimates are that Baikal contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water). Russian environmentalists had fought for decades to stop OAO Baikalsk from using the lake as a dump, fearing the pollution would destroy Baikal’s unique ecosystem.

The Wall Street Journal is painting this as Vladimir Putin doing a favor for one of Russia’s top oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, the owner of OAO Baikalsk. But considering that Deripaska was the same oligarch Putin publicly dressed down on Russian TV last June over his closing of a plant in the town of Pikalyovo, I doubt the PM is predisposed to do him many favors.

Pikalyovo itself is more likely an explanation for Putin’s action. The town is one of Russia’s “monocities” – places wholly dependent on one factory complex for their entire existence. In the case of Pikalyovo, shutting the plant meant that not only did the residents of the city lose their jobs, but also their hot water, which came from the factory complex’s boiler system. The 16,000 residents of Baikalsk were in much the same situation - without the plant their town could not survive. Deripaska, meanwhile, said that installing the closed-water system would make the plant unprofitable, his motivation for shutting the factory in 2008.

So, with the Russian economy already suffering from the global recession, Putin seems to have made the politically easy choice of letting the Baikalsk reopen. Environmentalists though are crushed by the decision and are warning that it could put the entire Baikal ecosystem at risk. Meanwhile, allowing outdated plants to continue operating, rather than forcing them to modernize, goes against the Russian government’s stated goal of modernizing the nation’s economy and only perpetuates the monocity problem.
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