The controversial paper mill on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia is once again about to be shut down. The mill’s license to release chemical waste from the bleaching processes into the lake is due to expire on August 15.
The mill has a checkered recent history. It was previously ordered to cease production on environmental grounds in 2008, but Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered it back into operation in 2010 as a means of saving 1,500 jobs.
The Moscow Times has reported that there may have been other considerations at work in the rationale for Putin saving the mill, despite having previously expressed his desire to protect the fragile ecosystems of Lake Baikal from its pollution.
The plant was also Russia’s sole means of refining certain cellulose products that are used as rocket fuel for Russia’s latest generation of Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles. And with Putin, issues of national security are a top priority.
This interpretation of events explains the current plan for the closure of the Baikal paper mill, because the Russian Ministry of Defense has realized that the cellulose products it requires can be obtained on the global market easily and cheaply and then converted to rocket fuel once in Russia.
With the economy of the region recovering from the uncertainty of the past few years, the environmental damage caused by the plant is once again the most important factor in considering its future.
The news that the license is not being extended came following a meeting between officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and executives from the VEB Bank, which is coordinating the mill’s debts with hopes of a return to profitability.
A series of scientific studies of the lake have demonstrated that after decades of abuse during the process of Soviet industrialization, Baikal has reached the limit of the damage it can take before it becomes permanently scarred.
With protection projects under way around almost the entire shore to ensure that emissions into the lake are controlled with very minimal pollution, the continuing operation of the paper mill was perverse. Its final closure has yet to be officially confirmed, but struggling with debt and with no license to pollute, its demise seems assured.