Russia rules China-backed Baikal bottling plant 'illegal'

Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AFP Photo/Eleonore DERMY)

Moscow (AFP) - A Russian court on Wednesday ruled that a widely-condemned China-backed project to bottle water from Lake Baikal illegally received the go-ahead from authorities.

The plant currently under construction to bottle the waters of the world's largest lake has proved highly controversial, exacerbated by popular fears of a Chinese "land-grab" in Siberia.

A judge at a district court in the Siberian city of Irkutsk ruled that the official permit for the plant's construction was "illegal", TASS state news agency reported from the courtroom.

Judge Natalya Isakova said that the permission was issued on the basis of a positive environmental impact report, which she also ruled was "illegal."

The ruling came after a petition against the plant on Change.org gathered more than a million signatures.

The water "will be shipped to China," the petition said, warning that the facility would block local access to the lake and "inflict irreparable damage" to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Russian company behind the project, AkvaSib, will appeal the court ruling, its chief engineer Vladislav Gerkovenko told TASS, insisting: "we are building the plant legally."

The plant's financial backing comes from a company called "Baikal Lake" based in China's Daqing. The plant was initially welcomed by the Irkutsk authorities in 2017, when they gave the $21-million project priority status.

The court case came after prosecutors contested the positive conclusions of an environmental impact report issued in 2016 by Russia's state environmental watchdog.

Prosecutors said it did not take into account the plant's impact on wetlands that are a feeding ground for rare birds during migration seasons.

Irkutsk region governor Sergei Levchenko, who initially backed the plant, this month argued that the plant's site is "environmentally protected land on all sides."

"I think this is insurmountable. I don't see the potential for bottling water there," he said.

While Chinese tourists flock to Lake Baikal, some locals argue that this does not benefit the local community because their tours are run by Chinese companies.