South Kazakstan Pollution Scare

Ecological experts warn of catastrophe after government ignores advice against flooding an abandoned metal ore mine.

South Kazakstan Pollution Scare

Ecological experts warn of catastrophe after government ignores advice against flooding an abandoned metal ore mine.

A quarter of Kazakstan's population could be at risk of serious poisoning after the government decided to flood a disused mine in the south of the republic.

Geologists and doctors have warned that if the Mirgalimsai mine in the city of Kentau is allowed to completely fill with water, there is a serious risk that the bromide, cyanide, manganese and lead present in high quantities will pollute drinking water.

The mine's drainage system was shut down on October 26, and some geologists believe it'll fill up in a matter of months and then contaminate a nearby river connected to the region's water supply.

The decision to stop pumping out water that had accumulated since the mine was closed in 1998 had been taken last year to save money, but it was only made public when Deputy Prime Minister Karim Masimov made a recent visit to Kentau.

It has since emerged that the authorities went ahead with their cost-cutting plan, in spite of warnings from specialists from nine Kazak institutions that the consequences could be catastrophic.

Deputy head of the state sanitary inspectorate Marat Spataev told IWPR that underground waters near the ore field already contain dangerous minerals and will become even more contaminated as they fill the mine.

The south Kazakstan oblast is the republic's most densely populated region. If its underground waters are polluted by toxins from the mine, almost a quarter of the population could be at risk.

Kentau resident Alia Mukhamedova told IWPR, "It looks as if our government wants to get rid of its own citizens. If they flood the mine, we'll all die from poisoning." Another resident, pensioner Sergei Kleinov, said, "The ecological tragedy of the Aral Sea wasn't enough for Kazakstan. They want another at Mirgalimsai."

The Sonkulsai spring, which provides 60 per cent of Kentau's water supply, will be in the flooding zone. And the oblast's other large city, Turkestan, is also at risk.

Vladimir Tsidik, a former Mirgalimsai employee, told IWPR, "Turkestan is around 230 metres lower than Kentau, so any [polluted] water from Kentau will flow there directly."

Agriculture in the oblast, which has the largest amount of fertile land in Kazakstan, will also be badly affected. The underground water supply threatened by pollution is also used to irrigate fields and water cattle.

The build-up of water underground could also lead to subsidence. The Kazak scientific research institute for mining mechanics and surveying estimates that roads, factories, power lines, and 752 private residential houses could be damaged.

The claims, however, have been rejected by those responsible for the Mirgalimsai operation. Azamat Bektybaev, one of the officials in charge, told IWPR, "There are not, and cannot be, any ecological consequences of flooding the mine."

The water levels began to rise when the mine closed four years ago, and the shafts were badly flooded at one point following power cuts to the pumping system. But the site was soon drained, and the authorities allocated 800 million tenge (around 5 million US dollars) every year to keep the pumps ticking over.

Magauya Kojamuratov and Yuliana Zhikhor are correspondents with Nachnyom s ponedelnika newspaper

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