Since the 33rd session, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN received information about the re-opening of the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill (BPPM) and its likely impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of Lake Baikal. In a series of letters dated 16 November 2009, 24 December 2009, 19 January 2010, 4 February 2010, 26 April 2010 and 6 May 2010 the World Heritage Centre requested the State Party to comment on the re-opening of the BPPM. Only on 2 June 2010 a letter was received from the State Party which provides detailed information on the BPPM, which is currently under review. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN received the following information from a number of sources.
a) Re opening of the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill
On 13 January 2010 the State Party approved Decree No.1 “On the introduction of amendments to the list of activities prohibited in the Central Ecological Zone of the Baikal Natural Area”, making amendments to the "List of activities banned in the central ecological zone of the Baikal Natural Territory" adopted in 2001. This decree removes paragraph 12 of the List: "ban on the production of cellulose, paper, carton, or derivatives thereof without using waste-free systems of industrial water usage", therefore making it again possible for BPPM to operate without using a closed water cycle. With a closed water cycle, the plant would operate without discharging wastewater into the Lake. The new decree also permits the storage, processing, disposal and incineration of all waste, including hazardous waste. According to the information received BPPM began re-opening in late December 2009 and officially reopened in January 2010. IUCN has received reports that wastewater from the mill is currently being discharged into Lake Baikal.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recall that since the property’s inscription in 1996, the Committee has expressed concerns about the mill’s discharge of toxic wastewaters into Lake Baikal and highlighted the importance of eliminating this issue by putting in place a closed-loop water treatment system. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recall that as early as 1997 the State Party began developing a strategy to convert the BPPM to a closed-loop water system and thereby minimise pollution. However, despite several attempts, the full conversion of the mill has proven elusive for a variety of reasons, including lack of funding. In its 2008 report, the State Party had noted that a close-loop water system was to be operational in September 2008. However, the mill reopened in January 2010 without this system in place, and therefore all t wastewaters are discharged directly into the lake. In addition, it is unclear which wastewater treatment systems are actually in place to minimize levels of pollution.
The Russian Academy of Sciences has been undertaking research on Lake Baikal for over 40 years and documented the impacts of the mill. The mill’s operations, including bleaching of pulp with chlorine, creates several toxic by-products such as dioxins and chlorinated furans. There are long-standing concerns that these toxic by-products are adversely affecting the ecological balance between the native Baikal plankton and other algae, and therefore disrupting the Lake Baikal ecosystem. The high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and dioxins detected in the endemic Baikal seal population (the only freshwater seal in the world) are attributed to the discharge of the mill’s toxic waters into the lake and atmospheric pollution due to burning of toxic waste. A mass death of Baikal seals in 1987 was attributed to the BPPM’s accidental discharge of a large quantity of untreated water. Moreover, as indicated in the report “On the state of Lake Baikal and measures for its protection, 2007”, prior to its closure in 2008 the mill caused 51% of all atmospheric emissions, discharged 86% of all wastewaters entering the lake, and created 42% of all solid waste.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the reopening of the mill without a close-water system and the discharge of waste water into Lake Baikal could affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property, and urge the State Party to rescind Decree No. 1 “On the introduction of amendments to the list of activities prohibited in the Central Ecological Zone of the Baikal Natural Area”. Moreover, they strongly recommend that the State Party evaluate various mitigation scenarios for the BPPM, including a cost-effective close-loop water system or total phasing out of the mill if cost-effective mitigation measures are not possible.
Phasing out of the mill would require a long-term strategy associated with the development of alternative livelihoods for the local people as the mill is the main source of employment in the region. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that there is little doubt that Lake Baikal has tremendous potential to develop tourism, ecotourism and other activities based on its natural and cultural values; activities which would contribute to preserving its unique biodiversity.
b) Other conservation issues of concern – pollution of the Selenga river, unplanned tourism developments, conservation status of the Baikal seal and the likely impacts of climate change on the Lake Baikal ecosystem
In Decision 33 COM 7B.28, the Committee noted with concern that the heavy metals in the Selenga River, which is the main tributary to Lake Baikal and constitutes 50% of its freshwater inputs, exceeded the maximum allowed concentrations. While a joint Buriatia/ Mongolia research project to monitor the pollution load of the Selenga River is ongoing, few concrete pollution minimisation measures have been put in place. The Selenga River is reported to be still heavily polluted, despite improved wastewater treatment in Ulan-Ude. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that comprehensive joint programme between the States Parties of the Russian Federation and Mongolia to address this issue is needed.
Concerning developments on the shores of Lake Baikal, IUCN notes that it has received reports that a marina with 5000-7000 beds is planned within the territory of the Republic of Buriatia. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN request the State Party to clarify the extent of this development and submit its Environmental Impact Assessment to the World Heritage Centre when this becomes available and prior to granting permission for the development. They also recall that in Decision 33 COM 7B.28 the Committee had noted with concern that the measures taken by the State Party to halt illegal constructions on the shores appeared ineffective, and had requested the State Party to develop and implement a comprehensive tourism strategy for the property to guide the delivery of sustainable tourism infrastructure.
While the official population of the endemic Baikal seal is between 70,000 and 100,000 individuals (based on visual estimates), there are concerns that these figures do not coincide with the smaller number of individuals observed in the area the Ushkani Islands which is the seal’s preferred habitat (the seal is relatively rare in other areas of the lake). There are also concerns about the impacts of hunting licenses on their population, particularly as these licenses are not effectively controlled. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN strongly recommend that the State Party resume funding for long-term monitoring of the seal population, which as indicated below is likely to also be affected by climate change and reduction in ice cover.
A recent peer-reviewed article ‘Climate Change and World’s “Sacred Sea” – Lake Baikal, Siberia’ (BioScience, 2009) demonstrates that Lake Baikal is already being affected by climate change, based on an analysis of water temperature and ice cover. By the end of the century the lake’s ice cover, upon which its endemic plankton and Baikal seal depend, is likely to significantly recede, leading to changes in Lake Baikal’s ecosystem. Moreover, melting permafrost may exacerbate the effects of current industrial pollution and accelerate the release of stored toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and dioxins, into Lake Baikal. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the impacts of climate change should be monitored over the long-term and adequate mitigation measures developed and implemented based on early detection of emerging trends.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN express their concern over the impacts of the re-opened Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill on the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and recommend that the Director of the World Heritage Centre in cooperation with IUCN convene a meeting with the Russian authorities, with the participation of relevant stakeholders, to discuss how these impacts can be addressed.