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Devoted to saving Lake Baikal, she won even Putin's ear

Marina Rikhvanova is one of seven grass-roots environmental activists who will receive the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco Monday.

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Encouraged by the success of Baikal Environmental Wave in banning the pipeline from a sensitive seismic zone near Baikal's shores, Rikhvanova is now organizing to block the expansion of a state-run uranium enrichment facility at Angarsk, just 50 miles from Lake Baikal, where the Russian government is planning to import nuclear waste from around the world for reprocessing.

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"It is extremely dangerous for people who live in Irkutsk and along the Angara River, because underground waters move in their direction," says Rikhvanova. "I don't think Rosatom has considered the danger to the region and to Lake Baikal. They do not provide information to the public about their plans, or the possible damage."

Rikhvanova still lives in her cramped Soviet-era flat in Irkutsk, trying to juggle motherhood, scientific work, and environmental activism. "I have studied Lake Baikal all my life and worked and protested," she says by phone. "It hasn't been easy, but it has been interesting."

Rikhvanova has endured frequent harassment from the FSB security service, including several search and seizure raids of her home and office. Last year her adult son Pavel was one of 20 people arrested after a still-unexplained attack on her group's environmental encampment, apparently staged by nationalist thugs, in which one activist was killed and several injured.

She describes it as an attempt to intimidate her. "Pavel is still in prison, although I believe the authorities know everything that happened," she says. "My son never belonged to any nationalist groups."

Environmental activism is growing increasingly hazardous in Putin's Russia, say other ecologists. "If you oppose Transneft or any other state company, you can expect to come to the attention of the state security services," says Roman Vazhenkov, Baikal campaign coordinator for Greenpeace-Russia. "We have growing limitations on freedom of speech in Russia. I know that Marina has had a lot of that kind of trouble. She's been heavily involved in opposing reckless development near the lake, and I fear her troubles are just beginning."

Such determination, evidenced throughout her decades of work, made Rikhvanova one of seven recipients of this year's Goldman Environmental Award, given in recognition of "sustained and significant efforts to preserve the natural environment." The world's largest prize for grass-roots environmentalists, it is sometimes dubbed the environmental "Nobel Prize" and comes with $150,000.