Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, is famous for its pristine, enchantingly blue colour. Locals call it the Pearl or Blue Eye of Siberia.
Yet the serene beauty of the lake is under threat. A Soviet-era paper plant at its southern tip still pollutes the lake, ecologists say — the source of 96 per cent of the lake’s pollutants.
The Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill was built 44 years ago at the height of Soviet industrialism, when “mono-towns” — communities built around a single factory — dotted the vast landscape.
But since then, the plant, which transforms wood into rolls of cardboard, has been wreaking havoc upon Baikal’s ecosystem, says Andrei Margulev, a coordinator for a union of non-governmental ecological groups.
“Two years ago, they shut down this plant. Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had it reopened. To make this plant eco-friendly is simply impossible,” the ecologist says.
Environmentalists speculate that every year the paper mill dumps millions of cubic metres of industrial waste into Baikal, and the pollution area will increase.
The plant in the town of Baikalsk is not the only culprit. Located near Baikal’s eastern banks, Ulan-Ude, (the capital city of the Russian region of Buryatia), as of 2007 dumped some 37 million cubic metres of wastewater into the river Selenga, which runs into the lake.
Last summer, scientists carried out extensive first-time work in the waters near the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill to measure its effects of life in and around the lake.
“After diving in submersibles near the plant’s drainpipe, we discovered that traces of emissions were visible,” Igor Khanaev, a senior biologist at the Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, told Metro.
“We also found that the number of fish and crustaceans was much less than in other locations of the lake.”
Scientists say Baikal’s cleanliness is due to epischura baikalensis, a species of small crustaceans endemic to the lake, which breaks down natural impurities in the water, whose numbers decrease year by year.
To ignore this situation could mean that ten years from now, Lake Baikal will no longer have that enchantingly blue colour.