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Public backlash prompts officials in Irkutsk to audit construction of bottling plant that would have exported Lake Baikal water to China

Meduza
The construction site for a water bottling plant at Lake Baikal
The construction site for a water bottling plant at Lake Baikal
Kirill Shipitsin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

This Tuesday, March 12, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered National Resources and Environment Minister Dmitry Kobylkin to verify that the construction of a bottling facility in the Lake Baikal area complies with “the strictest environmental standards.”

Construction on the plant began this January, supported by 1.5 billion rubles ($22.9 million) in investment from the company “Aquasib.” The facility was expected to begin operating by the end of the year, before construction is completely finished in 2021. Roughly 80 percent of the plant’s production is earmarked for export, mainly to China, South Korea, and Mongolia.

The construction work has provoked local protests, and there are now nearly 900,000 signatures on a Change.org petition calling on Irkutsk Governor Sergey Levchenko to halt the development of a “factory to bottle Lake Baikal water for China.” More than 142,000 Instagram accounts have subscribed to @baikal_save, which critically reports on the construction work. Activists are planning protests in several major cities across Russia, and officials in Irkutsk have already issued a demonstration permit.

On social media, Russian television personalities Elena Letuchaya and Victoria Bonya have endorsed the protesters’ demands. On March 4, Russian cosmetic artist Sergey Zverev picketed outside the Kremlin, leading to misdemeanor charges for staging an illegal demonstration.

Environmental protection officials in the Irkutsk region later flagged code violations in the construction of the water bottling plant, declaring that the building disrupts a habitat of endangered birds. Governor Levchenko immediately ordered the region’s law enforcement agencies to verify the construction project’s legality.

On March 12, the governor announced that he sees no way forward for the bottling plant, stating that inspectors found several code violations after construction work began, even though the project passed all the necessary regulatory checks. “I think the violations that were turned up are nearly insurmountable,” Governor Levchenko told reporters.