Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan's Silicon Valley

A dump that houses waste from a uranium plant offers a risky way of earning a living.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
For Kyrgyzstan's poorest, anything that isn't nailed down has some market value – even rubbish. But the industrial waste that people are sorting through at a uranium-mine dump in the Chui region, 70 kilometres from the capital Bishkek, could mean they are risking their health to earn a few dollars.

The Boordu dump, just outside the village of Orlovka, is not a new site, and the government says it made it safe five years ago.

But since December, a thriving trade has grown up here as local people dig up the ground in search of a precious commodity – silicon. The material, left behind from a uranium mine near Orlovka, is sold to scrap merchants in the capital Bishkek, who can sell it to China’s growing electronics industry at a healthy profit.

When IWPR contributors visited the site they found local residents aged from six to 60 sifting through a moonscape of grey slag. They have dubbed the site “Kumtor”, after Kyrgyzstan’s famous gold mine, even if the pickings are quite as rich.

They come from Orlovka itself and the surrounding villages, and many say they are desperate for any source of income because of the unemployment that followed the closure of the uranium mine in the early Nineties.

“I wanted to work on the land, but unfortunately I don’t have any,” said 20-year-old Maksat, who is the sole provider for a family of seven. “Since the mining complex at Orlovka closed down, my parents haven’t had a job. Their pension isn’t enough for anything.”

Adyl Merkebaev has been a teacher for 20 years, but his monthly salary equivalent to about 20 dollars is not enough to make ends meet. “After the [March 2005] revolution, the government did not raise teachers’ salaries. I’ve got three children, and how can 800 soms be enough to feed them? That’s why I’m here.”

In the years since the mine closed, people have often come to the dump to look for scrap metal to sell, but the silicon business is new – and appears to be much more organised.

People here either do the digging or work as middlemen paying about 10 US dollars for a kilogram of silicon and transporting it to Bishkek. Women occupy their own niche – the young ones selling food which they cook in soot-blackened cauldrons over open fires, and the elderly women selling bread, vodka, cigarettes and soft drinks.

The tractors and excavators at the dump site suggest a high level of organisation. The machines gouge out fresh craters for the “prospectors” to dig in.

IWPR was told that the site had been leased by a man who now controlled the trade, with the local authorities turning a blind eye or actively complicit.

“The police here check us and search our pockets to make sure that we’re not taking silicon away with us,” said one man who works here, adding that the man in charge “doesn’t let outside buyers in, and the ones here are his people. He gets the silicon and graphite that is dug up.”

This allegation was also made to IWPR by Toktayim Umetalieva, head of the Association of Non-Government and Non-Commercial Organisations, who has been instrumental in publicising the risks posed by the illegal excavations.

The local authorities deny anyone is leasing the dump, and say the people working there are not organised.

“At the moment, the only thing people are doing is looking for iron,” Kemin district government head Temirbek Sokeev told IWPR.

Although experts say the special storage dump for uranium by-products which forms part of the site has not been tampered with, civil rights activists say background radiation levels are too high.

Umetalieva raised the alarm in mid-February, warning that background radiation is ten or 20 times the permitted level and that human health was suffering as a result.

“I have seen with my own eyes that among the workers there are people with hands covered in festering sores. And there are just as many who get buried by earth during an excavation and break their pelvis or arm. There are a great many people with various illnesses, even some who are dying, being taken to the district hospital,” she said.

Akin Toktaliev, a lawyer who has taken up cases, believes the problem lies in concentrations of radioactive gases that have built up in the heaps of industrial waste. He accuses the local authorities of deliberately ignoring facts revealed by tests conducted by local health inspectors in February this year, which concluded that the gas radiation stood at 40 to 400 micro-roentgens per hour and that all activity at the site should be halted.

“The local authorities are covering this up,” said Toktaliev.

District government chief Sokeev rejected such allegations, saying, “A medical survey has just been conducted and everything is OK; there’s no harmful effect. The lawyers are seeking to link any death in the village to this.”

Despite his own assurances, Sokeev issued orders on February 20 for the digging to stop. Now, he says, “the area is under the control of the police. The dump has been levelled out. Experts have checked radiation levels and currently they are within [acceptable] norms.”

But people are still working at the site. On February 28, a woman was killed when a hole she was digging caved in and she was buried by earth.

Many say they are aware of the risks but have to continue taking them.

“We are not here because our lives are good,” said local man Sayak Ilimov. “I have three children and two grandchildren who are hungry. I know radiation is damaging to your health. But it’s better if I die of radiation than that my children should die of hunger. As long as I’m alive, I’ve got to feed these five children somehow.”

The teacher, Merkebaev, estimates that 30 or 40 per cent of the workers at the dump are children of school age, and include many of his own pupils.

“Five or six pupils per class are absent. Instead of studying, they’re working at the dump. At a parents’ meeting, we warned them not to let their children go to there as it’s a health hazard. But these families can barely make ends meet, and because they’re in a desperate situation they don’t stop their children going.”

One of the children, 12-year-old Adyl, said, “In my spare time I come here and dig up silicon. I make at least 40 soms a day and sometimes I can earn 150. I give the money to my parents.”

Concerned at the reports coming out of Orlovka, the central government has stepped in. Five years ago, the Ministry for Emergency Situations closed down the dumping ground and covered it over with earth. But action is now needed because the site has been disturbed so much.

On March 2, Emergency Situations Minister Janysh Rustembekov and visited the Boordu dump, and also inspected the special storage facilities where the radioactive waste is held dumps where the industrial waste of the mining combine is buried. Ministry spokesman Abibilla Pazylov said an immediate decision was made to spend 500,000 soms, about 12,000 dollars, to make the site safe.

The same day, Toktaliev filed a legal action against the emergencies ministry, district head Sokeev and the district health inspector. His claim is based on their alleged failure to prevent people becoming contaminated, and he is seeking compensation for those shown to have become ill as a result. “I will bring people who are suffering the effects of radiation into the courtroom, and try to get compensation for them,” he said.

Back at the dump, people say they will go on looking for silicon even if they are banned from doing so.

“We want any work, even if it’s as risky as this,” said Maksat. “We will wait another month and start digging again. We want to live, too.”

Cholpon Orozobekova and Amanbek Japarov are correspondents for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.