updated 3/6/2006 3:37:19 PM ET 2006-03-06T20:37:19

Russia’s environmental regulatory agency gave final approval Monday to a controversial Siberian oil pipeline whose route runs near the world’s largest freshwater lake, a spokesman said.

Alexei Afonin, spokesman for the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision, said the agency had signed off on the route for the 2,550-mile pipeline.

The pipeline is an important geopolitical tool for President Vladimir Putin’s government, allowing Russia to increase its oil exports to the energy-hungry economies of China, Japan and South Korea.

But environmentalists have long railed against the more than $11 billion project, warning that a rupture could cause irreparable damage to UNESCO-protected Lake Baikal, less than a half-mile away.

Experts on Monday reiterated ecological concerns and claims that state officials had manipulated the agency’s expert panel, vowing to challenge the approval in court.

Panel member Gennady Chegasov said the panel was recently packed with 34 new members after the previous group voted against the project. The newly appointed body voted in favor of the pipeline.

“Yes, there is need for the pipeline, but in a different location — far from Baikal’s watershed ... otherwise we will ruin it,” Chegasov said.

He and other environmentalists accused state officials and other panel members of failing to take into consideration the oil spilling into the lake, in case of a pipeline explosion, a terrorist attack or a heavy object falling on the pipeline.

Chegasov said panel members have been pressured and intimidated by officials to ensure they vote in favor of the pipeline. He said one panel member was summoned by his superiors and told that if he signed a document opposing building the pipeline, “he would never again find work in his field.”

Agency officials declined to comment immediately on the allegations.

Roman Vazhenov, head of the Baikal program at Greenpeace Russia, said the pipeline could have a negative effect both on Russia’s environment and its international reputation.

“If it so happens that the pipeline is built and oil spills into Baikal, it will mean national shame for Russia,” Vazhenov said.

Transneft, the state-controlled pipeline operator that will be building the pipeline, has denied any attempts to pressure the panel, but has said that rerouting the pipeline away from the lake would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The company insists that the technology it would use in building the pipeline would protect against leaks.

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