Oil pipeline threatening Siberia’s lake Baikal sparks protests

The threat of an oil pipeline scheduled to pass within a kilometre of Siberia's lake Baikal is mounting, following the Russian government's attempts to silence its own experts who had rejected the project as environmentally unsafe.

Experts fear oil spills into lake Baikal, the world’s biggest and most bio-diverse body of freshwater known to Russians as the “pearl of Siberia.”

The East Siberia – Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline is set to pass through an earthquake-prone zone as near as 800 metres from the shore of the lake, further increasing the danger of oil spills from the pipeline and sparking protests from Greenpeace and other NGOs.

“We are not against the pipeline, and we recognise the economic benefits to Russia it can bring. But we want it out of the water basin of lake Baikal,” Roman Vazhenkov, Baikal campaign director for Greenpeace Russia, told edie.

Greenpeace has accused Russian government agency Rostekhnadzor of trying to silence scientists it had itself commissioned to study the environmental impact of the pipeline, faced with their overwhelming rejection of the project.

In a report published on January 24, experts highlighted the “great potential danger to the lake” that the pipeline poses.

Although over 80% of the report’s authors pronounced themselves against the project, Rostekhnadzor has so far declined to endorse the results.

Experts said they have experienced pressure to change their decision. One of them, Genadi Chegasov, claims to have received telephone calls before a press conference telling him to “think carefully about what he will say.”

Rostekhnadzor has added a further 34 experts to the panel of 52, and extended the duration of the study for another month, “in a bid to change the conclusion of the panel,” Greenpeace believes.

Pipeline constructor Transneft assures that spills will not occur. “This is a hi-tech project and accidents there are just impossible,” Transneft Vice President Sergei Grigoryev told Interfax news agency.

But a recent spill from a Transneft-operated pipeline in the Russian region of Udmurtia put this claim into question. 32,000 tonnes of oil spilt from the pipeline on January 30-31, polluting drinking water.

In the Baikal area, local opposition to plans of passing the pipeline near the lake’s shore has been mounting over the years since the project first emerged.

“We are against the pipeline passing through the Baikal water basin, because Transneft cannot prevent an oil spill from the pipe, and will not be able to react fast enough in an emergency,” Marina Rikhanova of the Baikal Environmental Wave NGO based in the city of Irkutsk, 70km from the lake, told edie.

Responding to Transneft’s comments, she said: “Last year a spill on the Transneft-operated Omsk-Angarsk pipeline caused a fountain of oil to go up into the air, and the company only reacted once it had been alerted by local people.”

More information can be found on the Baikal Wave website.

by Goska Romanowicz

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