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  Main arrow Baikal Discovery Digest arrow Lake Baikal Ecology arrow Penny Newman's Specific Information on Lake Baikal  

Penny Newman's Specific Information on Lake Baikal

Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice
"The Jewel of


The Center was founded on the principle that we all have an obligation to help others and make our communities better places to live. Fulfilling that obligation, the Center has helped thousands of people across the country (and internationally with trips to China and India) in bringing about a safer, healthier world. In doing so, the Center has developed a strong reputation for its expertise and ability to help others help themselves and improve their lives. That reputation has resulted in an invitation to join a delegation of scientific, governmental, industry and environmental representatives to visit Russia for a conference on Dioxin. Penny Newman, Executive Director for the Center, traveled to Russia on August 20 through September 3 for the Third North American-Russian Workshop on Joint Actions to Reduce Dioxin and Dioxin-related Compounds.
Sponsored by the EcoBridge Enviromnental Programs of CEC International Partners, the program will provide an exchange of information and training on dioxin and methods of reducing dioxin levels. Dioxins are a highly toxic by-product of the chemical and paper-bleaching industries and can also be released during the incineration of municipal and toxic wastes. They can cause cancer, immune system suppression and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. The US and Russia are the leading sources of dioxin, but Russia is the only country in the industrialized world that has not implemented a government plan to reduce dioxin contamination. To begin developing a strategy, a delegation of North American and Russian scientist came together, this will be the Third meetings.
The workshop was held in Baikalsk, a small city on the southern shore of Lake Baikal, in Siberia. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest lake believed to be between 25 and 50 MILLION years old (by contrast the second oldest lake in China is only 5 million years old and Lake Tahoe is a mere 10,000 years old.) Lake Baikal is also the largest lake with 20% of the world’s fresh water supply (more than the water in all the Great Lakes combined). 335 rivers feed into the Lake and one drains out of it, Angara  River. Some of the most beautiful landscapes in Russia surround the Lake. 70% of species found in the Region are found nowhere else in the world including nerpa, a freshwater seal.
The Region has been inhabited and considered sacred by many different, non-slavic cultures for centuries. The Olkhon Island is thought to be the birthplace of the Mongolian ruler, Genghis Khan. In 1996, UNESCO named Lake Baikal a "World Heritage Site", placing 3.15 hectares under International protection. As a result of the ongoing collaborations the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (GCC) has added dioxin to their agenda. Named for Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the commission has issued a directive for US-Russian cooperation on this issue.
Other participants in the conference include representatives from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); Stop Dioxin Exposure national Campaign; International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC); Harvard School of Public Health; US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Moscow Institute of Organic Chemistry and Environment Committee of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. In addition there will be over 70 representatives from the scientific, public policy arena and community people affected by the contamination from around Russia. A total of 130 people joined together & produced the Baikal Declaration.
Lake Baikal
"The Jewel of Siberia"
Lake Baikal is the world's oldest lake believed to be between 25 and 50 MILLION years old. By contrast the second oldest lake, Lake Tanganyika in Africa, is 2 million years old and Lake Tahoe is a mere 10,000 years old. Most lakes fill with sediment in about 20,000 years, but Baikal has survived because it is on a geological rift that grows nearly an inch a year - enough to accommodate the silt and animal remains that drift to the bottom.
Lake Baikal is also the largest lake with 20% of the world's fresh water supply. The 400-mile long lake has more water than is in all the Great Lakes combined. 335 rivers feed into the Lake and one drains out of it, the Angara River. 70% of species found in the Region are found nowhere else in the world.
Lake Baikal is cherished by Russians as the "Jewel of Siberia", because of its beauty and clarity. Baikal is more like an inland sea than lake, with the world's only species of freshwater seals, a complex system of self-purification and hot water vents that nurture life in the deep.
The Region has been inhabited and considered sacred by many different, non-Slavic cultures for centuries. The Olkhon Island is thought to be the birthplace of the Mongolian ruler, Genghis Khan. In 1996, UNESCO named Lake Baikal a "World Heritage Site, placing 3.15 hectares under International protection."
Lake Baikal is more than a mile deep, and scientists estimate that its sediment extends four more miles beneath the lake floor. The accumulated deposits are a treasure trove for scientists, who hope that they will provide a detailed picture of climatic and evolutionary change over the millennia. A natural laboratory of creation and evolution, it is studied by scientists from around the world as a key to understanding global climate change. The diversity of Baikal's plant and animal life makes the lake as valuable for modern-day scientists as the Galapagos Islands were for Charles Darwin more than a century ago.
Among the two dozen scientific expeditions to the lake each year, a team of American, Russian and Japanese experts has begun taking core samples from the lake bottom. When the lake freezes over during the subzero winter, they drill from a barge frozen in the ice. An earlier 650-foot-long sample provided a geological record dating back more than 2.5 million years. This winter, they hope to extract sediment going back more than 2.5 million years. This winter, they hope to extract sediment going back more than 5 million years. These samples are especially important because they provide the continental record to compare with ocean-floor data.
Scientists can also study the pace of evolution and compare it with climatic change. Lake Baikal supports more than 2,500 species - including 960 kinds of animals and 400 plants found only here. Among them are the nerpa, a freshwater seal that migrated from the Arctic a million years ago. One of the main reasons for the lake's purity is the tiny but abundant ephisura, a crustacean that ingests algae and bacteria.
Lake Baikal offers a unique opportunity to study speciation in the context of global change. The sediments provide an uninterrupted record of the past. One can find out how fast the climate changed and study the molecular clock and changes in DNA. Scientists also can study the effect of pollution on an ecosystem that was largely untouched until the industrialization arrived in the 1930's.
Today, Lake Baikal faces a variety of threats:
• Industrial pollution produced as far away as Mongolia flows down the Selenga River, the lake's largest tributary. Some say the factories on the Selenga are Baikal's biggest source of chemical waste.
• A hydroelectric dam built by the Soviets on the Angara River in Irkutsk has raised the lake's level by as much as 10 feet, causing erosion and wiping out beaches and shoreline trails. The higher water level has impaired the ability of the vast Selenga delta to filter pollution entering the lake.
• Hazardous pollutants from coal-burning factories drift dozens of miles through the air, permeating Baikal and its watershed.
• The sewage of about 50,000 people is dumped untreated into the lake. Many villagers say they now boil the drinking water they draw from the lake's edge, something unheard of a decade ago.
• Illegal and uncontrolled logging is causing erosion that chokes tributaries with silt, harms aquatic life and increases sedimentation of the lake.
• Even in remote areas, trash litters the shore as Russians - including many who say they love the lake - throw garbage on the ground or in the water.
• The most visible symbol of Baikal's degradation stands on its southern shore: the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill.
Pulp and Paper Mill
Although the mill, a former military factory, filters the tons of waste water it pours into Baikal every day, enough toxic chemicals reach the lake to kill creatures in a contaminated zone more than a mile square. Despite the mill's treatment facility, environmentalists estimate that it dumps 300 pounds of dioxin a year into the lake. Mill officials concede that the plant discharges dioxin into the lake, but they put the amount at less than half a pound a year.
Day in and day out, brown smoke pours from the mill's giant smokestacks, creating a haze that hangs over the nearby mountains and turns the trees brown. Officials acknowledge that the plant pumps more than 23 tons of pollutants into the atmosphere daily. The mill also produces 2 tons of solid waste every day. It smells like rotten eggs- even after it is buried. Mill officials try to downplay the danger to the environment with little success.
Driven by Cold War competition with the United States, the government built the mill in the early 1960's to produce high-quality cellulose for military aircraft tires. Despite unusually vocal protests from residents, the Soviets chose Baikal because its pure water would make the best cellulose.
By 1986, the high level of pollution had become apparent even to Moscow, and the Soviets ordered the mill to shut down. Instead the government went out of business and the plant continued operating. Now, with the collapse of the Communist industrial system the mill has been partially privatized and makes pulp for low-quality paper rather than cellulose. It has managed to stay afloat and pay its workers on time. But if required to cough up the hundreds of thousands of dollars it owes for environmental damage, it most likely would go bankrupt.
The mill with its 30-year-old equipment, is nearing the end of its life span. No money has been invested in a decade, but its managers and workers are eager to keep the mill open so they can continue living in Baikalsk. The town of 17,000 people depends on the mill. In Soviet times, the company town was an oasis of privilege, with high salaries and well-stocked stores. Its climate is unusually mild for Siberia, and locals like to call it "subtropical". They can grow strawberries in the summer, ski in the winter and enjoy the lake - assuming they can ignore the smoke, the smell and the reports of health problems caused by toxic waste.
In an attempt to save both the mill and the lake, the U.S. Agency for International Development paid the American firm CH2M Hill to draft a plan for rebuilding the factory. Under the proposal, the mill would switch to a non-chlorine manufacturing process--eliminating dioxin, waste water and the burning of coal--and begin making newsprint, paper towels and sanitary napkins, mainly for export to China.
The biggest drawback of the project is its $600 million price tag, and exorbitant amount in poverty-stricken Russia. The government is considering whether to back the plan, which would be a first step in attracting U.S. investors. Without federal support for the proposal the rundown mill will likely be forced to close.
Some environmentalists argue that letting the mill go out of business is the best alternative. There is no longer any justification for keeping a factory on the shore of the lake. According to Tatyana Markova of the Baikal Environmental Wave, "Even if the mill becomes the best possible mill in the world, it doesn't belong at Lake Baikal."
Experts agree that the best way to protect the lake and have jobs is to develop ecologically sensitive tourism. If Russia and foreign investors had the same $600 million to spend, they could create a world-class tourist center with new roads, lake-shore hotels, docks and ski resorts.
Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) PO Box 33124 * Riverside, CA 92519Phone (909) 360-8451 * Fax (909) 360-5950Website:


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