Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.
As Uzbekistan continues the annual cotton harvest that is largely responsible for the Aral Sea’s demise, officials in Tashkent are boasting that a recent donor conference raised close to $3 billion to help save the endangered lake, once the world’s fourth-largest.
Verifying Uzbek government claims is never easy, and conference attendees are not hurrying to confirm or break down the impressive figure. But an event for the Aral Sea did take place in Urgench, a city not far from the Aral’s receding shoreline, on October 27 and 28. Addressing the conference via pre-recorded video, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon demanded better international coordination to “mitigate environmental catastrophe” reported uz24.uz, an Uzbek outlet. According to the independent Uznews.net, the conference was organized by the authoritarian state in conjunction with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a regional club, which critics say has done almost nothing since it was set up in 1993.
NASA satellite photos released in late August show that even a partial replenishment of the water-starved Aral is unlikely: The lake’s eastern tranche has completely dried up for the first time in history.
Some rare good news from the Aral Sea, Central Asia’s most infamous manmade environmental disaster: Efforts to save the northern part of the sea have notched up a success. The water is getting ever closer to the town of Aral, which once stood on the seashore but was left high and dry when the sea started steadily shrinking in the 1960s.
At one point the waters retreated 74 kilometers from the town (formerly called Aralsk) as the rivers feeding the inland sea were diverted by Soviet central planners to Central Asia's thirsty cotton and rice fields.
“This means the sea is returning,” he said in remarks quoted by Kazinform. “This data has been proven by satellite observation.”
Efforts to restore the fish population are also bearing fruit. At one point there was only one type of fish left in the waters, Kusherbayev said, but now there are 22. Salinity levels have dropped from 34 grams per liter to eight.
The recovery of the Northern Aral Sea has been brought about by a 13-kilometer dike that opened in 2005, an ambitious project that cost $86 million, of which $64.5 million came from a World Bank loan.
A state commission in Kyrgyzstan has used claims of environmental damage at the country’s largest, most lucrative gold mine, Kumtor, to argue for a new agreement with the company operating the mine, Toronto-based Centerra Gold, and to fine Centerra almost half a billion dollars.
Economics Minister Temir Sariev, who headed the commission, says he has evidence, including two reports by European scientists, that the mine is inflicting “colossal damage” on the environment.
But, until now, hardly anyone in Kyrgyzstan has seen those scientists’ supposedly damning reports.
In December and February the commission, acting, respectively, through two state agencies – the State Inspectorate for Environmental and Technical Safety (SIETS) and the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry (SAEPF) – fined Centerra approximately $467 million for alleged environmental damages, waste disposal and water treatment violations dating back to 1996. Centerra calls the claims “exaggerated or without merit.”
In its report for the state commission, SIETS said discharge from Kumtor is a "serious contamination threat" leading to "irreversible environmental impact on water resources."
Yet the two independent environmental audits Sariev commissioned, carried out by Slovene and German researchers last fall, found nothing unusual in Kumtor’s discharge. The Slovenes said water samples do not “indicate an environmental pollution or contamination situation.” The Germans said cyanide (used in the gold milling process) and heavy metals in Kumtor effluent “are significantly below the limit values of the German Ordinance on Waste Water.”
Basically, the reports – which EurasiaNet.org has seen – do not support the state commission’s environmental claims.
Kyrgyzstan's opposition politicians are outraged. Late last year hundreds of tons of coal with higher than normal levels of radioactivity found their way from a mine in Kazakhstan to the electricity and heating plant in Bishkek. When the media and public demanded the coal be removed from the city, it was reportedly transferred to the boiler rooms of 14 schools, a kindergarten and an orphanage.
The opposition politicos have seized the story, bellowing that generations of children will be contaminated. They propose theories that are impossible to verify, and offer all sorts of unsubstantiated statistics on how radioactive the coal is. According to the Emergencies Situations Ministry, the coal is emitting background radiation three to five times higher than normal.
Is the coal dangerous? Possibly. But considering Kyrgyzstan’s legacy of mismanaging radioactive waste, the arguments ring a little hollow.
In former Soviet uranium mining towns dotting mountainous Kyrgyzstan, impoverished families live with the threat of radioactive contamination every day, for their whole lives, and experience more associated illnesses than people living in other areas.
Central Asia is chock full of beautiful places, pristine prairies and mountain valleys that look as if they’ve never been touched by mankind. But many spots are well-documented environmental wastelands. How does the damage measure up to the rest of the world?
Radio Free Europe has flagged an interesting new ranking of global environmental performance, which shows Central Asian countries crowding the bottom of the list.
Researchers at Yale and Columbia universities have ranked 132 countries for environmental performance based on 10 categories, such as the effects of water and air pollution on human and environmental health, a country’s approach to managing natural resources, and climate change policy. The sixth annual Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked Kazakhstan 129th, Uzbekistan 130th and Turkmenistan 131st. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with the most lackluster economies in the region, fared slightly better at 121 and 101, respectively.
RFE/RL spoke with Angel Hsu, EPI project director at Yale, who said Kazakhstan’s poor performance is explained in part by its emissions record:
"For Kazakhstan, they performed the lowest on climate change and air [quality], and this is due to the fact that they have heavy dependence on coal." According to Hsu, "forty five percent of their carbon dioxide emissions come from the country's coal-fired power plants, and what I found interesting is that they have very little active government policies to expand renewable energy in the electricity sector."
Diversion of rivers and other water management problems – politically-charged issues that plague the region as a whole – also dragged down Kazakhstan's score.