Aqua business on Baikal. Chinese people to drink the unique lake to the lees? What does this have to do with Deripaska?
Following a request from the West-Baikal Interdistrict Environmental Prosecutor's Office, the Kirovsky District Court of Irkutsk has suspended the construction of a water bottling plant in Kultuk township, Slyudyanka district, pending the rectification of defects identified in the course of the inspection. The construction has been put on hold; the court has to make the final decision in two months. In the meantime, public activists and environmentalists are ringing alarm bells. An all-Russia public rally to protect Lake Baikal is scheduled to March 24; its program includes collection of signatures against the plant construction by AquaSib company belonging to Chinese investors. A day after the court decision, a fire occurred on Talovskie swamps in Kultuk – it must be noted that the main claims brought against the project owners pertain to these swamps. The CrimeRussia was figuring out what threats does the project pose to the lake and local environment, how was it approved, whether a ‘water competition’ is possible in the region, and what has oligarch Oleg Deripaska to do with this?
According to Vasily Kas’yanenko, Prosecutor of the West-Baikal Interdistrict Environmental Prosecutor's Office, the watchdog agency has filed with the Kirovsky District Court of Irkutsk an administrative lawsuit to recognize illegal the environmental assessment certificate, its approval, and the construction permit issued by the Kultuk Municipal Administration. Kultuk residents had earlier addressed the Prosecutor’s Office on this subject as well.
Kultuk township on the southern shore of Lake Baikal
It is known that the project design goes back to 2013. In 2017, Yuri Sharapov, Head of the Kultuk Municipal Administration, has issued a construction permit for the bottling plant on the basis of an environmental assessment approved by the Administration for the Irkutsk Region of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage (Rosprirodnadzor). Therefore, the developer possesses the required authorization documents. Marina Petrova, Deputy Minister of Economic Development of the Irkutsk Region, and Aleksei Shults, Head of the Slyudyanka District Administration, refer to the positive conclusions of the environmental, budget, and technological expert assessments – as well as to some public hearings that had allegedly given ‘the green light’ to the plant construction. However, it became known that the watchdog authority has identified a number of violations in the documents (e.g. the land lot was allocated with breaches of the land and antimonopoly legislation). In addition, the Prosecutor’s Office has submitted to the Investigations Directorate in the Irkutsk Region of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR) materials for institution of a criminal case under Article 286 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation in relation to the exceedance of official powers committed in the course of the above-mentioned public hearings. According to the inspection results, more than one-third of the persons listed in the hearings minutes had not participated in the discussion; furthermore, these people oppose the construction. Concurrently, prosecution inspectors found traces of oil products on the construction site and heaps of construction debris along its perimeter. In response, representatives of the developer promised to rectify the defects related to the presence of construction waste on the site.
Work suspension notice posted on the fence surrounding the construction
There is no doubt that, contrary to the popular opinion, representatives of the local authorities have falsified a number of expert assessments and lobbied the construction of the plant with a nominal capacity of more than 1 million of half-liter bottles of drinking water per day (i.e. 528 thousand liters per day or 190 million liters per year). The officials claim that the industrial development of the Lake Baikal shore won't damage it – but, instead, will provide jobs for local people. Out of the four planned plant buildings, one is almost completed; two-thirds of the 2,700-meter-long deep pipeline required to pump the water from the lake has already been laid. The first section of the plant is supposed to be launched by the end of 2019; the commissioning of other sections is scheduled to 2021. The drinking water from Lake Baikal will be shipped not only to China – but to South Korea and Mongolia as well.
The plant construction is underway
The intentions and plans of the regional officials are obvious – however, the role of Sergei Levchenko, Governor of the Irkutsk Region, in this process is not entirely clear. Scared by the public stir, he has recently submitted a letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation asking to check the results of the environmental assessment of the plant design documentation. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has also commented on the situation and promised to sort it out. Concurrently, Sergei Levchenko claims to be in the dark about this construction project.
Sergei Levchenko pretends to be unaware of the plant construction
“First, nobody had bottled there anything. Second, who told you where the bottled water is going to be shipped? The enterprise is incomplete. In my opinion, its owners, who are trying or had tried to build it, haven’t presented any contracts yet. At least, I am not aware of this,” – he told journalists and noted that the project implementation is unlikely. However, two years ago, the Governor had personally recommended to include the bottling plant construction into the list of regional investment projects.
Baikal and its unique environment
Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater reservoir on the Earth constituting 19% of the world freshwater reserves. This is the deepest lake on the planet (1187 meters below the sea level); its area (over 31 thousand square kilometers) is comparable with the territories of Belgium or the Netherlands.
Over 2.5 thousand aquatic animal species inhabit Lake Baikal; more than half of them occur only in this reservoir. The unique place features a specific microclimate; observations of migratory birds have been carried out there since the 19th century. The conservation legislation prohibits to sell lands in the vicinity of Baikal to local people; it is forbidden to build homes there. In other words, the Kultuk residents live in a strictly protected natural area; it is necessary to obtain a special permit even to build an outhouse in your own yard. However, somehow it became possible to build a plant on unique Talovskie swamps, the nesting place of Red Data Book birds, right near the bay accommodating Baikal cisco spawning areas.
According to the environmentalists, the deep pipeline construction for water pumping from the depths of Lake Baikal has already disturbed the unique habitat. And this was just the initial phase of the construction project. Some researchers believe that the plant construction alone – not to speak of its subsequent operation – would cause irreversible damages to the lake and its coastal area already affected by a number of environmental problems.
Nikolai Buduev, Deputy of the State Duma from the Republic of Buryatia, supports the suspension of the construction works. According to him, the public and environmental activists should pay attention to: “...the poor state of waste treatment facilities on the Baikal shores; leaching cesspools established by tourism bases (the waste infiltrates the ground and drains into Baikal); and the pulp and paper plant problem – 6 tons of slurry waste are laying on the shore and pose a serious threat to the local environment.
Overnight into March 16, 2019, a fire occurred on Talovskie swamps. It was extinguished; according to the preliminary data, the accident was caused by careless handling of fire. The investigation involving the Prosecutor’s Office is ongoing.
Vladimir Burmator, Chairman of the Environmental Committee of the State Duma, considers this a criminal offense and lawlessness and blames the developer for the fire.
“The situation around Kultuk is a total lawlessness. Just yesterday, we managed, with the assistance of the Prosecutor’s Office, to suspend the construction of a plant supposed to pump out and bottle Baikal water for subsequent shipment to China. However, this night, some activities were registered at the construction site – this contradicts the court decision to put the construction on hold – and Talovskie swamps were set on fire. This is a criminal offense. It is possible to imagine their potential gains if the builders openly and blatantly violate decisions of the court and Prosecutor’s Office and ignore the stance of watchdog agencies and executive authorities. It is also possible to imagine who is covering them up. I would like to remind that they had felt fine in the region until our interference. Sergei Levchenko, Governor of the Irkutsk Region, had considered this plant a part of the regional investment program and was comfortable with its construction. So, do not expect an easy victory. But it is necessary to fight for Baikal.”
‘Aqua business’ on Baikal
The investor intends to spend 1.5 billion rubles ($23.6 million) on the project. The owner and founder of Irkutsk-based AquaSib Limited Liability Company is Lake Baikal Daqing Water Supply Company Limited Liability Company incorporated in Heilongjiang province, China. It belongs 99% to Chinese citizen Jiui Gofa, while his wife Olesya Mul’chak, a native of Russia, owns the remaining 1% and acts as the General Director of AquaSib Limited Liability Company.
It is necessary to note that AquaSib claims the area where Baikal SAN company had planned to launch a water bottling plant a few years ago. The Irkutsk region has invested over 350 million rubles ($5.5 million) into that project from its budget; however, despite the support of Vladimir Pashkov, then-Vice Governor of the Irkutsk Region, the investor abruptly went bankrupt in 2015. An insolvency administration was imposed upon Baikal SAN Limited Liability Company, and a year later, the Slyudyanka District Administration has terminated the lease agreement on the waterside lot in Kultuk. The above-mentioned 350 million of budget rubles ($5.5 million) have been literally ‘razed to the ground': the only result of their ‘spending' was a concrete road from the railway to the lake. No protests against the plant construction were noted in the township in that period.
Recently, it was reported that another similar enterprise is going to be built near the AquaSib plant; the bottled water produced by it is supposed to be exported to South Korea. The second investor allegedly does not have all the required documents yet – however, local people believe that this is a matter of time.
The above information hasn’t been confirmed yet. But in February 2019, another enterprise specializing in the bottling of Baikal water has been incorporated in Irkutsk – Baikal Aqua Production Company. Its head Aleksei Arnautov is the Director for New Projects of RUSAL United Company belonging to Oleg Deripaska. Some Svetlana Kalacheva is in charge of a trade company of the same name; she or her full namesake is a department head in RUSAL United Company. In other words, the structures controlled by oligarch Deripaska have some ‘water-related’ interests in the Baikal region; it cannot be ruled out that the billionaire intends to bottle water near AquaSib and export it to South Korea.
It is necessary to note that at least five bottling plants have been operating on Lake Baikal for many years. Three of those are located in Listvyanka urban settlement, Irkutsk district, while the fourth one – in the Slyudyanka district. No claims had ever been brought against these enterprises. However, in June 2018, the Irkutsk Regional Court terminated the operations of Ozero Baikal (Lake Baikal) Lun Chuan Limited Liability Company exporting bottled water to China: a prosecutor’s inspection has identified sanitary–epidemiological violations at the plant located in the industrial zone of the town of Baikalsk. According to the watchdog agency, the production of this bottling factory was non-potable.
Glamour protest and possible competition
An online petition demanding to stop the plant construction in Kutluk was posted on the Internet back in 2017. However, the number of signatures under it (almost one million to date) has significantly increased in the last 2–3 weeks. Many experts believe that the high interest to an old petition was caused by the actions of extravagant celebrity Sergei Zverev. He has held three single-person pickets wearing a ‘Kremlin crown’ on Red Square to protect Lake Baikal. According to Zverev, he wanted “to be noticed”. And he has been noticed indeed.
Many people became aware of the situation in Kultuk after the flashmob involving Sergei Zverev
His pickets were broadly covered by the media; furthermore, Zverev received an official request to come to the police on April 24. He has been charged with violations of the established picketing procedure.
The majority of the people think that the protest of the glamorous stylist was a self-advertisement. But Sergei Zverev was born and raised in the above-mentioned township of Kultuk – so, he has strong personal reasons to protect his small motherland. By the way, Kultuk residents had also tried to attract the public attention to the plant construction in a pretty original way: in February 2018, a large banner with the inscription “Ramzan, save Baikal” was installed on a hill near the township.
The reaction of Ramzan Kadyrov, Head of the Chechen Republic, to this request remains unknown yet
There is an alternative opinion as well. For instance, well-known ecologist and geologist Evgeny Kislov considers the bottling of Baikal water an environmentally-friendly type of business, while the oil pollution and construction waste – easy-to-rectify issues. The researcher believes that the primary reason behind the Kultuk events is competition.
"...The chances are high that other producers of bottled water use the current situation to eliminate competitors. The popular image of “greedy Chinese people who will drink Baikal to the lees” is a myth fueled by the rival structures from time to time,” – Kislov says. He also notes that the Chinese demand for Baikal water is overestimated by the general public.
“People trying to sell Baikal water in China will tell you that its sales are not good at all: this water is expensive and not really needed by Chinese consumers,” – Kislov explains.
The ecologist may be right. But if so, why Chinese AquaSib and Oleg Deripaska’s Baikal Aqua are going to bottle this water? After all, its potential exports to Korea and Mongolia won’t exceed the Chinese demand in any event.
The Prosecutor General's Office had earlier accused the Moscow region’s ex-official of exceeding official authority, taking a bribe on an especially large scale, and forgery, and demanded to seize assets worth of 9 billion rubles ($135 million) from him.