January 19, 2010 / 9:17 AM / 9 years ago

Putin allows Lake Baikal paper mill to reopen

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has decreed that a paper mill on the shores of Siberia’s Lake Baikal can restart production despite years of complaints about pollution of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) waves onboard the "Mir-2" mini-submersible at Lake Baikal, August 1, 2009. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin

Putin, in a decree published on the government’s website, allowed the plant to resume making pulp, paper and cardboard in the area surrounding the lake, about 5,000 km (3,100 miles) east of Moscow.

Controlled by indebted Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, the Soviet-era plant on the southern tip of Baikal was mothballed in 2008 amid a row over pollution of the lake.

Environmental groups have long attacked the mill, saying it threatens the lake which harbors 1,500 species of animals and plants, including a unique type of freshwater seal.

Greenpeace said it was deeply concerned by the plans and that it would ask President Dmitry Medvedev to overturn Putin’s decision.

“The Baikal Pulp and Paper plant is an ecologically dangerous enterprise,” Greenpeace said in a statement. “It simply has no place on the shores of the sacred lake.”

Putin, after personally inspecting the bed of Baikal last year, said that scientists had told him the mill does not harm the lake, which holds one fifth of the world’s total surface fresh water and is revered as sacred by Siberian tribes.

The mill employs about 2,000 people and is the main employer in the town of Baikalsk, which has a population of 17,000. It also runs the only heating station in Baikalsk, where temperatures plunge to minus 30 Celsius in the winter.

“The plant does not pose a threat to the ecology of Lake Baikal so we warmly welcome ... (Putin’s) decision,” Oksana Gorlova, a spokeswoman for the paper plant, said by telephone.

“Almost every family in the town was connected to this enterprise so this decision was taken for the people of Baikalsk,” said Gorlova. “Production will start this year.”

The plant, built in the 1960s, is controlled by LPK Continental Management, part of Deripaska’s Basic Element industrial group. The other 49 percent is owned by the state.

Situated in southeast Siberia, Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by David Stamp

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