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Kyrgyzstan: Kumtor Spill Signals Further Disasters

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 28 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's spill of sodium cyanide in the mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan was an accident that had only been waiting to happen. That it is bad news for its region is evident. But similar accidents are poised to occur throughout Central Asia, where governments have hastily sold foreign companies the rights to mine and drill on their soil.

The Kumtor gold mine cyanide spill may be only the first of a series of post-Soviet environmental disasters.

Ecological disasters happened in the Soviet era of Central Asia but then they happened on Soviet soil. The government in Moscow had to accept responsibility and take measures to alleviate the suffering incurred by the local populations. But the ties which bind Central Asian governments and their corporate foreign guests are much weaker. True, all these foreign companies give environmental safety guarantees.

So did the Kumtor joint venture.

The Kumtor site is 4,000 meters above sea level in the mountains southeast of Krgyzstan's scenic lake, Issyk-Kul, not far from the Chinese border. The Kumtor project is a joint venture between Canada's CAMECO and Kyrgyzstan's state gold company, Kyrgyzaltyn. The contract was signed in 1992 and the first gold was produced at the end of 1996. The project was billed early on as a savior enterprise for Kyrgyzstan. It lived up to its reputation in 1997, the first full year of production. Kyrgyzstan produced 17 tons of gold in 1997, $176 million worth, and 14 tons of that came from Kumtor. The output of gold helped Kyrgyzstan cut its trade deficit and fueled a reported 49 percent increase in industrial output last year. The project also provides badly needed jobs in a time of high unemployment, not only at the site but in support industries.

One of those support industries is communications. Part of the agreement called for CAMECO to develop the road system leading from the capital, Bishkek, to the mining site. Roads in Kyrgyzstan are often primitive. The "highway" from Bishkek to the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, Osh, is just over 600 km, less than half of it is paved and it takes an average of between 14-16 hours to drive. That's typical, but the 250-km road from Bishkek to Balikchy, on the western tip of Issyk-Kul, takes about three hours and is among the finest stretches of road in Central Asia. That is thanks to Kumtor.

But at Balikchy the road divides, running along the north and south shores of Issyk-Kul. The north shore of Issyk-Kul is where all the tourist accommodations are. The south shore, kept in shadows much of the day by the high mountains directly behind it is much less developed. The road on the south shore leads to the Kumtor mining site.

Though there are many ancient structures standing in Central Asia there are few resort areas and among these few Issyk-Kul reigns supreme. The lake is an ancient and ageless beauty. From west to east it is possible to travel 178 km at its longest, from north to south 53 kilometers at its widest. It is also nearly 700 meters deep in the middle.

The people dependent on the Barskoon River as a source of water are the immediate victims of the spill. In the week since the spill, more than 500 people in the area have sought medical treatment, and nearly 100 have been hospitalized. Everyone admits some animals and fish have died at the scene. Authorities advised people not to drink the water from the river, but the only other option in Barskoon is the water of Issyk-Kul. Some officials in the Kyrgyz government say the spill will have little effect on Issyk-Kul. Many of those treated in the first days have been discharged from the hospital.

Officials at Kumtor say they will pay to clean up the spill, but it looks now like the Kyrgyz government will take Kumtor to court. However, the state-owned gold company is a partner in Kumtor. In fact, state-owned companies are the local partners in every major mineral or fuel project in Central Asia. That will be something to think about when these things happen in the future and it's time for someone to pay for cleaning up the mess.

All the Central Asian countries have something to sell on world markets. As all are poor countries, there is powerful incentive for the governments and the people to race to sell their natural resources with hope there will be an accompanying increase in the standard of living.

Issyk-Kul is wide and deep and may absorb this shock without noticeable effects. Various officials and experts say that, in any case, the spilled sodium cyanide will evaporate.

The real lesson from this event is that great and constant caution is required in extraction processes, and also in the related contracting and environmental protection processes. Countries can sell their minerals, oil and gas, but these things are not permanent and one's homeland is.