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Russian Environmental Threats Echo the Problems Facing New Mexico

Like New Mexico, the region around Lake Baikal in central Siberia is a land of enchantment and exploitation, offering a beautiful landscape rich with sites held sacred by the indigenous communities of the region and a target for international tourism and resource development efforts. And like New Mexico, Lake Baikal and its surrounding face environmental threats from historic mineral, timber and wildlife exploitation, and the risks of new development proposals. These links have been a basis for Southwest Research and Information Center's (SRIC's) five years of work with Russian environmental leaders and international non-governmental organizations on environmental challenges of post-Soviet Russia with an emphasis on the Lake Baikal region.

The most recent effort in the region was a set of two field trips to survey mining and development sites along the Selenga River — Lake Baikal's main water source. The primary objective of these efforts was to identify the various sources of available data in order to define the state of water resources in the region, and identify the threats by resource development on the Selenga River and the Lake. This trip was conducted in support of Earth Island Institute's Baikalwatch project and its colleagues in Buryatia, the Russian republic where the Selenga River flows, and Mongolia, where the largest portion of the Selenga River drainage is found. Participants in the Mongolia portion of the site visit were technical staff of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, and supplemented by Jennifer Sampson, director of the 10,000 Years Institute in Washington State, and Bill Volkert, a naturalist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Participants in the Russian portion of the site visit were representatives of the Buryat Committee for Environmental Expertise and the Buryatia Regional Council for Lake Baikal, in addition to Galina Anasova and Vladimir Gunin, myself, and Misha Jones, environmental consultant based in the Russian Far East.

The Mongolian portions of the trip focused on the large, and expanding, placer gold mining industry that has developed in Mongolia in the past ten years. These mines are essentially unregulated and lack identifiable mining plans, much less monitoring, pollution control or reclamation plans. Relying on bucket wheel dredges and high pressure water jets reminiscent of the technology of the California gold rush of the 19th century, the Mongolia gold operations are devastating the river valleys in the northern part of the country where the gold is being exploited. The observations and field data gathered during the trip to the Mongolian gold fields will be used to demonstrate the landscape and water resource damage associated with current mining, and support the development of an effective water resource monitoring and mine management policy in the country.

The Russian portion of the site visit included a trip to the molybdenum and gold mining districts in the Zakamensk region of Buryatia. At the upper end of a lushly vegetated valley of the Dzhuda River — the largest tributary of the Selenga River in Russia — lies the World War II era Dzhudinski mining and milling complex. This complex produced more than 40,000,000 tons of tailings, left behind an enormous open pit, as well as underground mining from which tungsten and molybdenum were separated for industrial and military usage during the Soviet Period. Lacking any interest in pollution control or remediation, the operators of the Dzhudinski complex have left a giant open wound oozing pollutants into the Dzhuda from overflowing mine shafts and seeping tailings piles. The tailings and mine surround the city of Zakamensk where homes, apartment blocks and schools lie right next to waste sites. In addition to the molybdenum and tungsten mine wastes, gold placer mining is found in the Zakamensk region. Locally built gravity rigs have been built to re-mine areas once mined by Chinese prospectors, and later by British using dredges, all before the Soviet period. While some efforts to reclaim the gold tailings can be seen, the lack of attention to erosion control and revegetation have resulted in regraded waste piles being unstable and subject to rapid erosion which is quickly destroying further attempts at reclamation. Opportunities to raise interest in remediation of the Dzhudinski area, funded by income from remining of the large volume of inefficiently milled ores, was discussed with regional administrators and representatives of local and Buryat regional authorities.

Observations from the Zakamensk portion of the trip, as well as information gathered regarding coal mining in the region and other sources of water pollutants such as paper mills, concrete factories and sewage plants, will be used to identify priorities for Russian and international efforts to protect Lake Baikal and restore damaged lands in its watershed.

Emerging environmental threats in the Lake Baikal region include the development of oil and gas transmission corridors to deliver Siberia hydrocarbons to East Asian markets, and the proposal for a commercial expansion of the Khiagda in situ uranium mine (See Voices Spring 2001). These problems, as well as development of Selenga watershed protection efforts, are projected to be the focus of future exchanges which would bring Russian environmental leaders to the US for training. This may lead to additional site visits, further research, and presentations at technical seminars in Russia.

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