Greenpeace activists protested at the headquarters of a Russian government agency today, accusing it of trying to silence its own environmental experts who are opposed to plans for the world's biggest oil pipeline, scheduled to be built through a World Heritage Site around Lake Baikal.

Over 80% of the experts, commissioned to assess the environmental impact of building the 4,200 km pipeline, rejected the proposal because of its proximity to one of the world's most fragile ecosystems, Lake Baikal - which has been a World Heritage Site since 1996.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the proposed pipeline was commissioned by Russia's Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Supervision in November 2005. The agency convened a panel of 52 top Russian scientists, who delivered their assessment on 24th January 2006. 43 out 52 of them signed a statement concluding that the pipeline would have a negative impact, highlighting that it would be built just 800 metres away from Lake Baikal, and poses "a great potential danger to the lake".

Following these conclusions, the agency was expected to issue a special decree endorsing the results of the assessment, and blocking construction of the pipeline. However, the agency has failed to publish the decree and a number of the scientists on the panel have now complained that they have been pressured into changing their mind and approving an immediate start to construction.

"We are receiving phone calls asking to think twice before going public with the outcome of our work. In the meantime, the Federal Service is using loopholes in the Russian legislation to block the negative conclusions", said one of the experts. Experts claim that the agency is now recruiting more scientists in a bid to change the conclusions of the panel. Speaking at a Greenpeace press conference, one expert said "Issuing a decree approving the EIA is just a bureaucratic formality, and the law does not bind the Federal Service to sign it. However, it says the Federal Service can hire additional experts to reach a decision, this time in favour of Transneft, while blocking the negative conclusion".

The so-called 'Pacific Pipeline' developed and promoted by the Russian state-owned oil transport monopoly Transneft is going to become the largest pipeline project in the world. With its total length of 4,200 kilometers, annual capacity of 80 million tons of oil and the total cost of up to 18 billion US dollars, the pipeline is three times as long and the Alyeska pipeline in the United States. Roman Vazhenkov, Lake Baikal Campaign Coordinator of Greenpeace commented "We want to show our support to all experts who are not giving in to the pressure and urge the Federal Service to approve the negative conclusions of the state EIA signed already by the overwhelming majority of the experts. At stake is Lake Baikal and the future of Russia as a civilized country". Under existing legislation, the deadline for the agency to issue the decree is February 3rd, 2006, but sources within the Federal Service say that the approval process may not be completed until April.


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