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    After 50 Years, a Soviet-Era Paper Mill Will Stop Polluting the World's Largest Freshwater Lake

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill, via Wikipedia

    Lake Baikal, a lake in Siberia that's the oldest and deepest in the world, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. But the environmental marvel has been beset by pollution from a huge Soviet-era paper mill for nearly 50 years. There's good news, however: the paper mill on the shores of the lake, which first came online in 1966, will be shut down permanently by November.

    The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill, which has been accused of polluting Lake Baikal since it was first opened, restarted operations in 2010 after a 14 month inactive period. That reopening followed a move by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to exclude cardboard, pulp, and paper operations from a list of industrial activities banned from the Lake Baikal region, a decision that caused uproar among environmentalists.

    Now, the mill's board of creditors have reportedly decided to pull the plug because the old, unpopular mill is too expensive to run. RIA Novosti has the roundup

    About 800 people will lose their jobs after the paper mill shuts down, Radio Liberty reported Thursday.

    The authorities have so far failed to create enough replacement jobs in the town of Baikalsk, which hosts the mill, despite earlier promises to do so, Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reported.

    The government plans to turn Baikalsk into a tourist zone, but named October as the earliest date for reviewing the plan to revamp the town’s economy. The plan has an estimated price tag of 42 billion rubles ($1.3 billion); by comparison, the mill’s debt that drew it into bankruptcy stood at under 3 billion rubles ($90 million).

    The crescent-shaped lake, which contains around 20 percent of the world's non-frozen freshwater, is more than a mile deep at its deepest. Its flora and fauna are largely endemic, making it an incredibly pristine location for evolutionary research. The water is so clear that you can sometimes see more than a hundred feet deep. And being a centerpiece of Siberia that lies on the edge of the Mongolian steppes, Lake Baikal is surrounded by incredible wild lands.

    A nice look at Lake Baikal's environment

    It's also in the middle of nowhere. So how did the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill pop up in the first place? The Soviet government first discussed the plans in our around 1957, which was met with opposition from scientists, fishermen, and locals. The massive lake provided an essentially limitless supply of freshwater for washing pulp and producing paper. It also provided the perfect dumping ground for wastewater at the end of the cycle.

    As RIA Novosti notes, the lake's defenders became more vocal in the 80s, when Soviet government's push for Glasnost led to a period of more openness. Pulp production was slated to end in 1993, but the collapse of the USSR threw those plans out of whack, and it wasn't until 2008 that the mill was forced to convert to a closed-loop water system that ended pumping of wastewater into Lake Baikal.

    Some environmental groups contest the claim that the mill stopped polluting, which led to the protests in 2010. Regardless, dealing with wastewater is naturally more expensive than simply dumping it, and the mill's credit board is using post-2008 unprofitability as an excuse for shutting it down. Assuming it does go offline in November, Lake Baikal will lose one of its major sources of pollution after nearly five decades of operation.