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Analysis: Safety Of Kazakhstan's Pipelines Questioned

By Danesh Baibolatov

On 1 November, an explosion on a natural-gas pipeline belonging to the Intergaz Central Asia group in western Kazakhstan killed three workers. Three other people were hospitalized with serious injuries. The explosion occurred about 300 kilometers from the city of Oral in northwestern Kazakhstan and was the fourth explosion of an oil or natural-gas pipeline in Kazakhstan in the last two years.

A state commission led by the Kazakh Emergency Situations Agency is currently investigating the 1 November explosion. According to agency spokesman Qayrat Karibaev, there are three possible explanations for the blast.

"We have three versions. First, we think that the pipeline is very old. Second, the pipeline might have been damaged by technical equipment during repair work, which might have caused the blast. Third, some technical mistakes might have been made during the pipeline's use," Karibaev told RFE/RL.

Meanwhile, Nurlan Atshabarov of the Kazakh Agriculture Ministry's Water Committee said that, in general, the quality of the pipes is very low. He said that the pipes used in the Kazakh oil and gas sector are mainly imported from China and/or Uzbekistan, and that the quality of such pipes is usually very low. He added that very often these imported pipes are secondhand goods and have no state certificates allowing them to be used, and the pipeline-construction companies usually buy them to try to save money.

One Kazakh oil expert, professor Nadir Nadirov, said that the weather might be a major factor in pipeline accidents. Winter temperatures in the region can fall to minus 40 degrees Celsius, while in the summer they can reach 40 degrees, which damages the pipelines.

"Nobody takes natural anomalies under consideration. I am waiting what they are going to say (about the last explosion). I have my own opinion. The natural anomalies should be taken into account as well," Nadirov told RFE/RL.

Representatives of the Kazakh State Statistics Agency say they consider only such issues as labor safety, the pipelines' technical condition, and technical damage. Natural hazards are not considered.

According to Kazakh environmental activists, accidents on the natural-gas pipelines damage the local environment drastically. But Robert Suyirbaev, chairman of the Environmental Protection Department of the West Kazakhstan Oblast governor's office, told RFE/RL that the 1 November explosion was the first one in the last five years to kill anyone. He declined to specify the level of damage to the local environment caused by the blast.

"We do not know the extent of the damage. We are studying the situation currently. The official data will be announced by us later on," Suyirbaev said.

Kazakh Environment Minister Aytkul Samakova said that, according to the law, the company owning the pipeline is obliged to pay fines for damaging the local environment if there is any sort of explosion on the pipeline. But she also said that nobody oversees the amounts paid as fines, and local authorities do not necessarily use that money for either improving the local environment or increasing safety on the pipelines. Robert Suyirbaev confirmed Samakova's statement, saying that the owner of the pipeline should pay the fine. But he also said that regional authorities decide how to spend the money, implying that the money may be used for other things than the environment or pipeline safety.

"If the fine is paid, it goes to regional treasury, and it is up to local authorities how to use that money," Suyirbaev said.

KazTransGaz officials told RFE/RL that the pipeline on which the explosion occurred belonged to the Oral-based Intergaz Central Asia company. Intergaz Central Asia director Vladimir Lehman refused to comment on the situation to RFE/RL. Currently, the state commission is investigating the pipes damaged by the blast. It is expected that a final conclusion on what caused the explosion will be issued in a week. In 2003 the Kazakh government allocated 8 billion tenges ($61 million) for pipeline safety. It is expected that the final conclusion on what caused the explosion will be issued in a week.

But the number of recent explosions -- four in two years -- suggests that amount is either inadequate of is not being spent efficiently.

Robert Ebel , who is chairman of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, suggested that the crux of the problem may be that the pipelines are simply too old.

"I would be a bit concerned about the natural-gas pipelines that carry natural gas from Central Asia into Russia. These lines are rather old. I guess there is corrosion on the pipelines and when you move gas through pipelines under high pressure, you're exposed to leaks and something could set that leak on fire. That's probably what happened and you had a break in a pipeline that caught fire," Ebel told RFE/RL.

For that reason, Ebel said, some of the pipelines may not be safe. "You have to look at the pipelines on an individual basis, when were they built, had they been well taken care of, where was the pipeline made, what are the soil condition,... there are all sorts of factors to be looked at when you determine whether these pipelines are safe or not," he said.

The Kazakh government has ambitious plans to increase its gas exports through the Central Asia-Center pipeline from 42.3 billion cubic meters in 2003 to between 75 and 90 billion cubic meters in 2010, according to a Kazakh Energy Ministry statement on 14 October. That pipeline also carries gas to Russia from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well as from Kazakhstan. But Ebel pointed out that if the pipelines are to carry increased volumes of gas, they will have to be repaired or rebuilt at some point.

"There is concern that a good portion of the pipelines, if they're going to be used to carry volumes of natural gas in future, then proportions of this pipeline are going to have to be rebuilt or replaced," Ebel said.

(Danesh Baibolatov is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Almaty. RFE/RL's Naz Nazar also contributed to this report.)

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