Gazprom pipeline 'could harm Russian nature reserve'
His old rifle might be slightly rusty, his moustache flecked with gray and his boots a bit worn out.
But the 51-year-old ranger Nikolai Ivanov says he is more ready than ever to fight for a wildlife sanctuary lost in the wilderness of the Karelian Isthmus in north-west Russia.
Never mind that his opponent is a powerful Russian energy giant - OAO Gazprom.
Over the past few years, the company has been working jointly with a number of European countries on the controversial Nord Stream project.
End Quote Alexander Soutyagin Monitoring BTS NGO
What would the birds that live there say if they could speak and curse like us”
Once completed in 2012, this venture is meant to deliver natural gas to western Europe via two pipelines that will snake along the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Much has been said and done to reassure environmentalists around the world about the relative safety of the undersea section of the project amid initial ecological concerns.
But the situation is different with the the 917km-long overland gas pipeline, known as Gryzovets-Vyborg, in northern Russia. It will join the nautical section of the Nord Stream pipeline at the seaport of Vyborg on Russia's Baltic coast.
Russian ecologists say that some 1.3km of this pipeline runs through a "zakaznik" - a wildlife reserve not far from St Petersburg called Rakov Lakes, an important ornithological sanctuary.
It is home to thousands of geese, ducks, swans, blackcocks and other birds, of which many are endangered species.
This pipe does not belong to the Nord Stream company. Its sole owner is Gazprom, one of Nord Stream's main shareholders.
But the Russian gas giant says the pipeline does not go through the reserve.'Wrong place'
Alexander Nikitin from the Saint Petersburg department of the international environmental organisation Bellona Foundation says that the NGO is considering taking Gazprom to court.
"It is clear that it's wrong to build a pipeline through a wildlife refuge," he said.
Ranger Ivanov agrees. Sitting in his small house a few steps from one of the lakes, he says the sanctuary is no place to build a pipeline.
Gazprom has already done lots of harm to the soil and plants with its first pipe, buried between the two Rakov lakes, he says.
A second one, he adds, will run parallel to the first, with construction planned for 2011. This one will make matters even worse Mr Ivanov says.
"They have turned everything upside down here with their bulldozers," he said.
Mr Ivanov was reluctant to go into much detail about the issue, fearing that his little uprising might cost him his job.
"But I will stay by my lakes," he said, adding that he was not going to let anyone destroy the place.
St Petersburg-based environmentalist Alexander Sutyagin, who is head of the NGO Monitoring BTS (Baltic Pipeline), said that the recently built pipe crosses several watercourses going to and from the lakes.
He said it affects the state of the soil on the site and, in turn, the water in the lakes.
"Besides, Gazprom employees ride through the reserve in off-roaders - how can we even call it a protected natural territory if there are off-roaders everywhere, [there is] deforestation and construction? What would the birds that live there say if they could speak and curse like us?"
But Gazprom says such accusations are totally groundless.
"The pipeline 'Gryzovets-Vyborg' does not run through the sanctuary Rakov Lakes," Gazprom's press office said in an e-mail to BBC News.
The company said that there was no deforestation on the site of the "zakaznik" either.
The pipeline does not go through the reserve because it is located in the same corridor as another pipe, built years ago, it added.
Ecologists say that this is true, but point out that the first pipeline runs through the "zakaznik" as well.Local authorities
The sanctuary belongs to the St Petersburg region, where Gazprom leases the land.
The region's Committee for Natural Resources confirmed that Gazprom's pipeline does indeed run through the refuge, but that the authorities have defined a certain area inside it with slightly different regulations.
And in that area, the construction of the pipeline is permitted.
End Quote Dmitry Kovalev Biologist
We judged that using the same corridor would be better for the environment than digging a new one”
Dmitry Kovalev, a biologist from St Petersburg State University, was heavily involved in choosing the site for the overland pipeline. He worked closely with Gazprom when he was the director of the Rakov Lakes sanctuary.
He says that it was inevitable amid political and economic pressure that the Nord Stream project ran the pipes through the Karelian Isthmus. The region is covered with a multitude of lakes, rivers, marshes and forests full of wildlife.
"Could we have bypassed the reserve? Yes, I suppose we could have," he said.
"But there was already an old gas pipeline dating from the Soviet times running between the two Rakov Lakes [from Russia to Finland]. So we judged that using the same corridor would be better for the environment than digging a new one just outside the reserve and damaging the reserve even more."
But he said that the situation could be improved if either the company or the local authorities bothered to restore the sanctuary to its original form.
According to the preliminary damage estimates, it will require no more than 4m roubles ($126,500), he said.
But Gazprom says that the company has been paying out whatever is necessary to compensate for the environmental damage.Whose responsibility?
When talking about the overland pipeline, many automatically associate it with the Nord Stream company.
Even in the official documents that permitted Gazprom to cut down forest on the site, the project is referred to as "the construction on the territory of the 'zakaznik' of the Northern European Gas Pipeline (that later became known as Nord Stream) on the Gryazovets-Vyborg site".
But the Nord Stream company makes it quite clear that the Russian overland pipe has no relation whatsoever with the nautical part.
When BBC News inquired about this with the company's headquarters in Switzerland, a press officer explained that the pipeline in Russia had "nothing to do" with Nord Stream - being a totally separate venture managed by Gazprom.
"We assume that other projects, just like ours, are carried out in line with the applicable legislation. We are doing our utmost to minimise the environmental impact of our activities.
"Overseeing all other activities related to gas production and gas use is a very complex task that cannot be performed by one single operator of one single part of a complex system," the letter said.International concerns
Bellona environmentalist Alexander Nikitin said that such attitude raises numerous concerns.
Pipelines belonging to different companies interconnect, carrying the same gas from point A to point B, he said. And, inevitably, at some points along their routes there will be more harm caused to local ecology than at others.
He said that nations should refuse to take part in a project with potential environmental damages at any stage.
"I don't think it would ever be possible to have unique international standards for building pipelines and... unique environmental regulations, though it would be ideal," Mr Nikitin added.
"But in the case of Nord Stream it is simply unfair. Western Europe is receiving a clean product - natural gas - but at the cost of damage to the Russian environment."
"This is just not right."