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As we end our cycle journey by Lake Baikal we are closing a loop - we were here 3 years ago to report on a planned oil pipeline that threatened spilling oil into this Siberian lake, the world’s oldest, deepest and richest in species of flora and fauna.
As we finally arrive by on the lake’s shores, this time the long way around by bicycle, we find it unspoilt - largely thanks to the courageous work of NGOs and the involvement of the general public. Following years of protests, the ESPO (East Siberia - Pacific Ocean) pipeline has been diverted to the north and is now being constructed 50km from the lake’s shore, instead of under 1km - enough to greatly reduce the oil spill threat. An oil spill could have destroyed all life in this enormous lake, the world’s biggest freshwater reservoir and home to hundreds of species not found anywhere else on the planet, including the world’s only freshwater seal.
Jennie Sutton of the local Baikal Wave NGO thinks that the pipeline route was changed thanks to "very large demonstrations in Irkutsk" among other factors. "I was so proud of the people of Irkutsk," she says, explaining that to demonstrate in Russia is more risky than it is in the West. A recent attack on the Baikal Wave NGO, which had its offices ransacked and its computers and data destroyed, is a case in point.
We first visited Jennie in July 2005, at a time when combating the ESPO oil pipeline was the focus of Baikal Wave’s activities (see "Oil pipeline that could kill lake Baikal edges closer"). At the time, it was hard to believe that a coalition of insignificant locals would succeed in convincing the Russian government to divert the pipeline. "This is the real triumph," says Jennie. "People had lost faith in their own significance"- and they now feel their actions can make a difference.
But although the Baikal has been saved, this may be at the price of the great Siberian river Lena which the new pipeline route crosses, Jennie Sutton says. Environmental activists in Yakutia, where the pipeline will cut across the Lena, are now fighting to change the pipeline plans yet again. As the inhabitants of the Baikal region before them, they are afraid of oil spilling into the water. But this time the issue is not the route but the method used to carry the oil across the river: activists want the pipeline to pass through a tunnel under the riverbed, a safer but more costly alternative to the planned method that involves laying the pipe in an unprotected trench cut directly into the riverbed.
The problem lies in the severity of the local climate - melting river ice in the spring can rip up whole chunks of riverbed, and would have no trouble doing the same to a pipeline. On top of this, the pipeline will cross the Lena in a seismic zone. Campaigners therefore urge the pipeline construction company, Transneft, to fork out the extra 40% in river crossing costs and opt for the tunnel crossing to improve environmental safety. For the Save Lena coalition of activists, the ESPO underwater crossing of the Lena is nothing but an "oil bomb,” because "the effect of oil spills on this river - one of the longest and clearest rivers in the world, which nourishes an area comparable to the European Union - can be as destructive."
"This is not an action against the ESPO pipeline, but for the safety of the ESPO," they stress. It remains to be seem whether they will be listened to.
Back in France, we hear more good news for Lake Baikal after the succesful diversion of the ESPO. The Baïkalsk paper mill that had been the main source of industrial pollution into the lake shut down in October, most likely for good. The mill, controlled by Russia’s richest man, Oleg Deripaska, closed due to financial problems. The exact causes are unclear, but the mill, dating back to the 1960s, was in need of general modernisation. A recent investment in an environmentally-friendly closed-loop water system could only have worsened its short-term financial woes, and the financial crisis seems to have done the rest. Despite local job losses, the result for the wider Baikal area is definitely encouraging - the closure of the mill puts an end to decades of dioxins and other toxic chemicals flowing untreated into the lake.
More detailed information on the ESPO pipeline can be found in Goska’s journalism thesis article, "Oil pipeline that could kill Baikal edges closer".
For more information on eco-tourism in the Baikal region as an alternative path of development see Goska’s other thesis article, "Baikal balances between eco-tourism and eco-disaster".
For information from local NGOs see:
Eyge NGO, member of the Save Lena River coalition