MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

SRIC Continues Environmental Work in Russia

Why would Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) commit it's Research Director, Paul Robinson, to provide technical support to community groups in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, when so much work in needed closer to home? It's because environmental leaders in Siberia continue to request our help with their water quality, mining, and resource development policy issues. As our work in Siberia has proceeded, we've been able to build strong working relationships with people who are committed to challenging obstacles similar to those SRIC has worked on for more than two decades. These include the challenge of effective public participation in decision-making, and the social and environmental challenges faced by isolated rural regions being used to supply raw materials to fuel a nation.

This work has evolved slowly since 1996, currently concentrating on an area in Siberia near Lake Baikal. This region includes the Buryat Republic, or Buryatia, a "state" of the Russian Federation, home to a large ethnic Buryat population. The traditionally Buddhist Buryat population has cultural and social roots similar to the people of Mongolia, a nation directly south of the Buryat Republic, and number about 500,000 of the approximately 1,500,000 people in Buryatia. When you include the ethnic Buryat people in the neighboring Irkutsk and Chita regions, the Buryat community is the largest surviving indigenous population in Siberia.

Buryat has a long history of providing natural resources to enrich European Russia, whether Czarist or Soviet. Home to extensive gold, molybdenum, and coal mines, it also has deposits of lead, zinc, uranium, and oil and gas. The Khiagda uranium mine would be the first commercial-scale uranium mine in Buryatia.© www.sric.org

SRIC's work has been conducted in cooperation with U.S. and Russian non-governmental organizations. These include the Buryat Regional Environmental Council on Baikal, the Baikalwatch/Earth Island Institute, and Pacific Environments (formerly Pacific Environment and Resource Center). The current activities in Buryatia are a direct result of workshops in California convened by Baikalwatch and Pacific Environments in 1998 for environmental leaders from across Siberia and the Russian Far East. One attendee was Galina Borisovna Anosova, a leader of the Buryat Regional Environmental Council based in Ulan-Ude (the capital of the Buryat Republic), and a geologist with 30 years of field experience throughout the Baikal region.

The major issue Galina Borisovna brought up at the workshop was the development of the Khiagda uranium in situ leach mine, a mining technology that uses strong sulfuric acid as a leaching fluid which is pumped though the ore zone via a series of injection and production wells. Working within the framework of the Buryat Regional Environmental Council, Galina has been working with residents of the town of Romanovka, the community nearest Khiagda and the sole access point for all traffic to the mine, as well as to gold mining and other activities north of the town. The problems facing the Khiagda project are very familiar to SRIC, in part due to our multi-decade experience related to uranium mining, our current focus on in-situ uranium mine plans in New Mexico, and our familiarity with Soviet-style acidic in situ mines in East Germany and the Czech Republic.

These concerns was the focus for Paul Robinson on his first trip to Buryatia in 2000, and second in September 2001 (see Voices from the Earth, Vol. …). Paul did an evaluation of water quality threats to the Baikal region in the watershed of the Selenga River, and participated in an Environmental Roundtable on the Khiagda uranium mine. It was during this period that MINATOM announced its plans to expand the experimental level of mining at Khiagda to a commercial scale.

"This announcement led Galina Borisnova and the Buryat Regional Council to convene a formal Public Expertiza Committee to begin the preparation of "Observations and Suggestions." According to Russian environmental law, the comments of such bodies, when properly prepared and submitted, must be formally considered by the Buryat Republic and Russian Federation authorities who review the Khiagda proposal. However, the depth of consideration can vary, from full to very little.

The Khiagda proposal is found in an eight volume compilation that includes both a Technical and Economic Evaluation and an Environmental Evaluation. However this document was distributed to the public without either an evaluation of the economic efficiency of the project, or an economic evaluation of the uranium deposit. These evaluations were retained and kept confidential by Khiagda project proponents.

To meet comment deadlines per Russian law, and despite the enormous information gaps in the application, a meeting of the Public Expertiza Committee was planned for late January 2002. Continuing SRIC's work, Paul Robinson agreed to travel to Buryatia to attend the meeting.

The most tangible result of a week's work was the preparation of a ten-page "Observations and Suggestions" memo. This memo was incorporated the Public Expertiza Committee's report to local and national authorities. In addition, comments by Russian specialists were discussed in detail, and afterward were provided to Public Expertiza Committee Secretary Glaina Borisnovna Anasova for her use in preparation of the Committee report. Working meetings were held with each specialist to supplement their technical observations with specific recommendations for additional study, project design revisions, or other actions in response to their observations.

"Observations and Suggestions" provided by SRIC addressed the:

  • Lack of a demonstrated market for the uranium to be mined, as the cost of uranium extraction exceeds current and projected world market prices by more than 25%;
  • Lack of discussion of the use of Russian "weapons grade" uranium to meet the atomic power demand identified as justification for Khiagda uranium. "weapons grade" uranium is an important and available alternative that would provide nuclear non-proliferation benefits, as well as protect the Khiagda taiga (forest) ecosystem;
  • Groundwater monitoring data presented by Khiagda in 2000 was not in the review of groundwater impacts from the experimental phase. The contamination shown in the 2000 data has yet to be addressed; and
  • Lack of radiation exposure monitoring for workers at Khiagda, such as personal dosimeters, which are standard equipment at U.S. uranium mines and mills.

As part of Paul's visit, Galina Anosova arranged a meeting with the Buryat Republic Deputy Minister for Economics. This initial meeting was to be followed by discussions of the "Observations and Suggestions," leading to subsequent meetings with Buryat Republic officials responsible for reviewing the Khiagda plan. After leaving Buryatia, Paul meet with representatives of Ecojuris, a Russian environmental law center, and Ecoline, a Russian environmental policy and training center, to review his comments on the Khiagda proposal and its implications for those organizations as they work with NGOs in Buryatia.

Future collaborative efforts with environmental leaders in Buryatia have yet to be formalized. They are likely to include:

  • Additional work related to Selenga pollution sites, identifying data needs and a restoration program to address its impact on water quality in the Lake Baikal region;
  • Development of an information exchange among ethnic Buryat and Navajo community leaders, to address the impacts of resource development on traditional values, grazing practices, and approaches to indigenous community governance; and
  • Follow-up on Khiagda developments, including responses by MINATOM to the "Observations and Suggestions", as well as response by environmental authorities in the Russian Federation and Buryat Republic.

While winter in Buryatia is pretty cold, minus 10° to 0° Fahrenheit most of the time, a collaboration built on warm, sustained relationships has been established between SRIC and colleagues in the growing NGO movement in Central Siberia and the Russian Federation. Each step in this effort has been a project in itself to arrange and fund. Yet from this, future activities are likely to evolve and expand. This work has also been of significant value of SRIC staff, broadening our outlook on how our work in New Mexico fits in a global context. We have accomplished much here at home, as compared to other people and the threats to their homelands around the world.

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"Look at the land. Our grandfather lived here. So do we. It is our land here, her we used to live. Stranger, touring around you will not come, you will not come. We lived over these hills, we still do, because the forest is our life."
--Huaorani chant,
translated by Laura Rival

"I want to stamp on the ground hard enough to make that oil come out. I want to skip the legalities, permits, red tape, and other obstacles. I want to go immediately and straight to what matters: getting that oil."
--Rick Bass,
Petroleum Geologist

1989, taken from Amazon Crude, Judith Kimerling



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