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Kazakhstan: Fallout Continues From Russian Rocket Mishap

Baikonur Cosmodrome (file photo) (AFP) PRAGUE, August 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from both countries are still tallying the full extent of the damage from the explosion of a Russian rocket over Kazakh territory on July 27. The blast, shortly after liftoff from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, spilled deadly heptyl rocket fuel over a swath of territory.

On August 8, two members of Kazakhstan's parliament lamented that neither Kazakh nor Russian officials were taking the crash seriously enough. The lawmakers, Serik Abdrakhmanov and Tokhtar Aubakirov, sent a letter to Kazakhstan's prime minister asking why Russian experts were so slow in arriving at the scene of the accident.

They also complained that Kazakh officials weren't diligent enough in their investigation of the area where rocket debris fell to earth. The deputies suggested that it might be time to ban rocket launches from Kazakhstan altogether.

Assessments are continuing of the damage caused when the modified Russian Dnepr rocket -- carrying 18 satellites -- crashed barely a minute after liftoff. Most of the debris fell over Kazakhstan's central Qizilorda province.

Toxic Fuel

The chairwoman of the local provincial council, Almagul Bolzhanova, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that shards of the rocket are not the primary concern.
Kazakh officials said soil samples from the site of impact indicated levels of heptyl many times above those considered safe.

"The debris fell very close [to inhabited areas]. Heptyl is there, and an investigation is going on," Bolzhanova said. "It is difficult to say anything just now. Everything will be clear to us in a while -- whether the land is contaminated, [or] whether the water is poisoned. We have written a letter to the government demanding a stop to the use of heptyl [rocket fuel for Baikonur launches]."

Heptyl rocket fuel is said to be among the most toxic of all manmade chemicals.

Kazakh officials fear that when the rocket exploded, it spread heptyl over a wide area of central Kazakhstan, contaminating soil and water and presenting an enormous health hazard to residents.

'Minimal' Damage

Igor Panarin, spokesman for the Russian space agency Roskosmos, suggested last week that the danger is minimal.

"We presume, based on approximate data, that a large part of the fuel -- tens of tons, approximately 23 tons -- burned up [before it could cause any damage]," Panarin said. "That's why the consequences for the environment are considered to be minimal."

The head of a Dnepr rocket (ITAR-TASS, file photo)

That is not the assessment Kazakh officials are giving now. On August 4, a joint Russian-Kazakh commission met to discuss the consequences of the crash. Kazakh officials said soil samples from the site of impact indicated levels of heptyl many times above those considered safe. Kazakh officials also estimate the damages at the crash site alone amount to nearly $2 million.

Qizilorda provincial Chairwoman Bolzhanova said that preliminary estimate might not even begin to take into account the longer-term problems inhabitants of the affected area could face.

"After all the issues are thoroughly discussed and the case is fully investigated, the major issue will be the protection of the health of local residents," Bolzhanova said. "Also, social protection should be thoroughly discussed."

Pressure On Moscow?

The governor of Qizilorda province suggested this week that the true cost could be as high as $330 million. He conceded it was unlikely Russia would pay that much in compensation.

The governor is probably correct. The Dnepr rocket that exploded was not the first Russian rocket to explode over Kazakhstan. Russia rents the Soviet-built Baikonur Cosmodrome for $115 million annually. In 1999, two Russian Proton rockets crashed in Kazakhstan, also spreading heptyl rocket fuel. The Russian compensation was about $400,000.

Roskosmos spokesman Panarin said today that any Russian compensation will be determined by a joint Russian-Kazakh commission.

Baikonur remains essential to Russia's space program. It is the primary launch site for rockets carrying commercial and military satellites or resupplying the International Space Station.

Health Concerns

As experts add up the damage from this Dnepr crash and Kazakh and Russian officials debate compensation, people living in the crash zone are left wondering what might happen to their health.

Rakhman Nuraliev, the mayor of the village of Komykbaev, near the crash site, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that people in his village have no information about what happened.

"There's no livestock there. We don't even know what kind of damage there is," Nuraliev said. "I don't know what to say, exactly -- [because] we weren't there. There are many rumors. People say many things, so I can't say anything specific."

...And Preemptive Steps

Kazakhs are seeking more than just financial compensation from the Russians. They also want more control over the city of Baikonur and its 80,000 inhabitants, which are currently governed jointly by Russia and Kazakhstan. Kazakh officials also want Russia to provide sensitive data -- such as planned trajectory and altitude -- on coming launches.

The two countries agreed on August 4 to conduct exercises on cleanup and other operations in the event of similar mishaps in the future.

(Merhat Sharipzhan and Talgat Bukharbaev of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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