Green Or Gone

Microplastics In Lake Baikal, World’s Largest Freshwater Lake At Risk

Fishing nets, industry and other human-caused dumping are poisoning Russia's Lake Baikal, the world's largest, deepest (and oldest) lake. Bigger than all the North American Great Lakes combined, it's at risk after 25 million years of life.

Microplastics In Lake Baikal, World’s Largest Freshwater Lake At Risk

Akvasib bottling plant for Baikal water under construction in Irkutsk Region, Russia

Anna Geroeva

MOSCOW — The vast and ancient Lake Baikal in Russia has a rich history, providing a home for thousands of plants and animal species and sustaining the nearby Buryat tribes going back millennia. It's the world's deepest and oldest lake, and has survived for some 25-30 million years. But its depths bury a dark secret: a growing layer of microplastic pollution that threatens the health of Lake Baikal.

A new study looking at microplastics was conducted in the southeastern coast of the lake and the Small Sea in Southern Siberia. These places are not the most populated on the Baikal shore; no more than several hundred people live there permanently. But the water sampling areas were chosen not by chance: all of them are touristic areas, so they are considered to have a significant human impact.

Olesya Ilyina, head of the expedition to Baikal, says, "In terms of water surface area, the concentration of particles corresponds to a high level of plastic pollution and is comparable to their content in man-made freshwater bodies, such as the North American Great Lakes."

The chemical composition of the plastic microparticles is not much different from particles found by colleagues of Russian scientists many years ago in other lakes, oceans and seas. Lake Baikal is filled with polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, the decay products of various household packaging materials.

Pollution from trash, industrial waste and fishing nets 

Dr. Maxim Timofeev, director of the Research Institute of Biology at Irkutsk State University, says that microplastic particles get into Baikal waters in different ways: Plastic is largely carried by the Selenga River that goes from Mongolia to Russia and flows into the lake. The second source of pollution is spontaneous garbage dumps and the third is the sewage treatment plants.

"Fragments, films and foam are products of the breakdown of plastic into small particles in the coastal zone," Timofeev explains. "Fibers have a different origin: This type of microplastic particle comes from washing the synthetic clothing worn by much of the planet's population."

Abandoned fishing nets are a breeding ground for harmful substances, and a place where fish die

Another way for plastic to get into Baikal waters is through cheap Chinese-made polymer fishing nets. According to local ecologists, they cling to the rocky bottom and tear, and no one brings them back up to the surface.

Abandoned fishing nets have long been a breeding ground for harmful substances and a place where fish die. Local ecologists and scientists from federal research institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences are trying to solve this problem. They recently established a regional public organization, Responsibility Depth, in Irkutsk.

According to Alexander Krasovsky, Responsibility Depth president, past generations were more responsible. Further, the nets were woven by hand and were stronger; if they broke, they weren't abandoned. New polymer nets are hardly toxic, although their chemical compounds haven't been fully studied. Over time they too undergo degradation, disintegrating into microscopic polymer fibers and settling on the muddy bottom.

Krasovsky says that now, few fishermen who lose a net are concerned about retrieving it: "Why do it when you can buy a new cheap Chinese net at the nearest market? And it all starts again."He explains that often, nets lay on the sea floor, start to grow algae and rot. This process is accompanied by the consumption of oxygen, resulting in decreased water quality and fish death.

"In general, the net becomes overgrown with algae, and over time they produce toxins that are bad for fish and people," he says.

Ice caves in Baikal lake, Siberia, Russia

Andrey Nekrasov/ZUMA Wire/ZUMA

The harm of decomposing plastic

Although, the damage caused by these nets has not been sufficiently studied, harm is also being done by those other external sources: rivers flowing into Lake Baikal, waste dumps and garbage thrown by tourists. And the quality of plastic depends on its source.

The main source of synthetic fibers in the water is simple laundry.

Dr. Timofeev highlights the differences in microplastic pollution in Baikal and Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia. The composition of Baikal water pollutants is dominated by synthetic fibers, while in Khubsugul, it's fragments of microplastics. Dr. Tomofeev says this difference tells us about the sources of the main pollution and determines the priority tasks: The source of plastic micro- and macro-fragments is precisely the coastal trash that gets into the water.

"Therefore, in the case of Lake Khubsugul, it is enough to establish a system of removing garbage accumulated on its shores to solve the problem of such pollution," he says. "The situation in Baikal, on the other hand, is more complicated."

It is known that the main source of synthetic fibers in the water is simple laundry. The dominance of synthetic fibers in the pollution of Lake Baikal is a marker of an ineffective or even non-existent system of treating sewage from settlements. Dr. Tomofeev says that "Therefore, the highest priority is the urgent installation of modern treatment facilities, both directly in the populated areas on the lakeshore and in its tributaries."

The meter-thick ice of Lake Baikal attracts many tourists in winter

Ulf Mauder/dpa/ZUMA

A global look at microplastics 

The ratio of plastic particle size groups in Baikal is not significantly different from the Pacific garbage patch. According to biologists, in Baikal, microplastic particles make up 34.3%; in the North Ocean garbage patch it's 52.5% and in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans it's 34.9%. At the same time, larger-sized pollutants — from 1.01 to 4.75 mm — in the waters of Lake Baikal make up 56.2% of particles, almost as much as was found in the three oceans: 57.5%.

Philip Sapozhnikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oceanology at the Russian Academy of Science, says that polluting often includes colonial diatom algae that form large branching colonies of biopolymer (matrix) threads with their cells sitting at the ends. Sapozhnikov explains, "The colonies are heavy and overgrown microplastics — even with their own buoyancy, which is close to neutral — easily go to the bottom and are buried in the ground."

In addition, many particles of plastic are, in principle, heavier than water and sink under their own weight. The thin layer of microplastics that is gradually gathering at the bottom of Lake Baikal can be used in the near future to mark our era of super consumption, using the geological profiles of sedimentary rocks. The loose sediments at the bottom of Lake Baikal already contain many microparticles of plastic forming a centimeter-thick layer. At this rate, scientists will have to admit that it's no longer possible to remove all microplastics from Baikal water.
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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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