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Pulp mill's closure puts a Russian town in peril

Global crisis has shut down the plant, a step activists, trying to save Lake Baikal from its runoff, long sought.

December 21, 2008|Megan K. Stack

BAIKALSK, RUSSIA — Even after the troubles began at the mill, most of the families lingered, clinging to vague hope. As early autumn gave way to snow, they gathered up rumors, pinched pennies and drank a little more than usual.

Their way of life was at risk. The global financial meltdown had succeeded where historic changes and generations of crusading ecologists had failed: It stopped production at the Baikalsk Pulp & Paper Mill, a Soviet relic and environmental menace that serves as the economic lifeline for this town of 17,000.

The mill closure threatens to drive this lonesome town, clinging to the southern shore of Lake Baikal in the great wastes of Siberia, to extinction.

"It seems to me this will soon be a dead town," said Alexander Shendrik, head of the mill's union. "Everybody depends upon the plant."

Built by communism and imperiled by capitalism, the town was founded by Communist Party volunteers who constructed the mill amid the rich timber forest. The pollution-generating factory chugged for decades alongside the oldest, deepest lake on the planet, a vast ecological gem nicknamed the Galapagos of Russia for the rare species it contains.

Through the years, the volunteers started families and meshed into a close-knit working-class community. The mill was privatized with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the lifestyle was little changed. Children went to the plant's kindergarten; some families lived in factory housing. Even today, the town is run by former Communist Party leaders.

But the mill has long been criticized by both Russian and foreign environmentalists as a dangerous anachronism, a remnant from the days when the Soviet Union rushed to create industry at any cost. A battle has raged for years over whether to shutter the mill to preserve the lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Because of environmental concerns, the mill had already been forced to adopt a cleaner but costlier mode of production. This was a wan victory for environmentalists, who had wanted to shut the plant altogether, and a blow to workers, who believe their livelihood was put at risk for an abstract ecological threat they consider exaggerated.

Still, the danger of closure didn't come until pulp prices plunged this year, along with those of other commodities. The mill was operating at a loss, and in September, management issued the first order to halt production.

By now, most of the 2,280 millworkers have been told they are redundant, as the lingo goes, and put on forced leave until early February. They were supposed to draw a percentage of their salaries until then -- average pay is just over $500 a month -- but have been warned not to expect any money in December.

"Some of the people, like us, have nowhere to run," said Yanina Ilnitskaya, 40, who worked as a translator at the mill.

This town has always run on the clock of the factory; days started and ended with shifts, and families worked together in the drying department, the press, or washing the pulp.

Ilnitskaya came here from Ukraine, married and started a family.

"This is a friendly town, and the life of the people here is very special," she said, her pale face softening.

"They came from all over the former Soviet Union, and it was a very beautiful town, very green."

Townspeople are used to the harsh winters that sweep down off the tundra and push over the mountains to Mongolia. They are used to living hand to mouth, and to drowning out ecologists who argue the mill tainted the lake with chlorine runoff.

Resentment toward environmentalists runs deep. People scoff at evidence that their mill is dangerous. They regard the lake as pristine, gulping down its waters and digging into platters of fresh-caught omul, a tender white fish found only in the depths of Baikal.

That distrust has deepened since pulp production stopped, as ecologists lobby the government to keep the mill closed.

Townspeople are pushing in the opposite direction -- they contend that, as a matter of economic survival, they should be allowed to resume the older, dirtier system of paper making.

"We're watching this process, watching local and federal authorities, and trying to use our influence not to let them give this permission to the paper mill," said Roman Vazhenkov, head of Greenpeace's Lake Baikal campaign.

Vazhenkov acknowledged the dire social threat, and said he hoped the government would provide some aid to the people of Baikalsk. Still, he celebrated the work stoppage. "Environmentally, we were very glad about the closure," he said.

For all the hardships they have grown accustomed to, the people of Baikalsk are not used to being cut adrift. They too are hoping for intervention by the government.

Layoffs are sweeping the country and unemployment is rising along with reports of delayed salaries.

"If the pulp mill closes, the town has nothing to exist on," Mayor Valery Pintayev said. "We don't have other enterprises."

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