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Kyrgyzstan: Chemical Spill Raises Questions

Prague, 28 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- More than 1,760 kg. of sodium cyanide, a highly toxic chemical used in refining gold, spilled last week into Kyrgyzstan's Barskoon River in a truck accident. Some Krgyz authorities insist there hasn't been any severe environmental damage, but refuse to allow independent investigation.

Others inside the government and out charge that the damage is substantial. And many charge that international standards on transporting hazardous substances have been violated.

The Barskoon River flows into the immense lake, Issyk-Kul. The Kyrgyz-Canadian Kumtor Operating Company joint-venture (KOC), which works Krgyzstan's Kumtor gold deposit, says the truck involved was carrying 20 tons of the cyanide compound when it went into the river. The company says it was removed from the river in five hours, limiting the spill to 1,762 kg. The accident occured about 40 km upriver from the lake.

KOC and the Kyrgyz Ministry of Extraordinary Situations insist that the environment wasn't severely affected. KOC President Gerhardt Glattis says a special commission has investigated the site and concluded that the ecology wasn't threatened. Ecology Ministry experts say water samples show cyanide levels in the lake to be within the the norm.

But local observers say dead fish and cattle have been found at the site. Local authorities have shut off the water supply to the village of Barskoon with several thousands of residents. Local press reports say about 500 residents of the Issyk-Kul region have sought medical treatment since the spill and about 70 have been hospitalized.

Independent experts told RFE/RL's correspondent in Bishkek that the joint-venture had not allowed them to visit the site.

A governmental commission chaired by Vice Prime Minister Boris Silayev has concluded KOC compounded the problem by failing promptly to notify authorities. At a news conference in Bishkek yesterday, he said that residents of the Issyk-Kul region watered their gardens after the spill and poisoned the soil. He said KOC will be required to decontaminate the soil and bear the full cost.

Silaev also said that 680 residents of the region have sought medical treatment and 71 have been hospitalized. The Legislative Assembly of the Kyrgyz Parliament also has formed a six-person parliamentary commission on the accident. It is to report to the parliament by June 16.

Yevgeni Usov of Greenpeace-Russia told RFE/RL yesterday that chemicals like sodium cyanide must be transported under conditions like those applied to radioactive materials. The Bishkek-based Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law says that international agreements on chemical weapons require special authorization for transnational delivery of large shipments of poisonous materials.

The governmental Kyrgyz Customs Committee told RFE/RL that sodium cyanide comes to Kyrgyzstan from China. A committee official said that the Kyrgyz government has exempted KOC from customs duties, making it difficult to determine what materials KOC may have imported.

Kulubek Bokonbaev, Kyrgyz minister of ecology, estimated Monday that the equivalent of $9 million in ecological damage is attributable to the spill. Abyl Karymshakov, chairman of the inter-regional committee on ecology, said the damage probably is two- to three-times that.

Minister Bokonbaev accused the joint venture of failing to inform the authorities promptly about the accident. Regional authorities learned of the incident about 7 p.m. local time, seven hours after the fact, and the Ministry of Ecology was informed only the following morning.

Member of Parliament Mukar Cholponbaev told parliament Monday that KOC has failed to live up to its agreement with the government to pave the road connecting the Kumtor site with the town of Balykchy. Cholponbaev said road conditions are too dangerous for such heavily laden trucks. He said five trucks were transporting more than 100 tons of chemicals on the day of the spill.

A parliamentary commission issued a report in 1993 that the Kumtor project wasn't fulfilling agreed-to standards, including environmental protections. The commission suggested the government void the contract. The government at the time accused the commission of pursuing an opposition policy, and in May 1994 approved the project. The parliament was dissolved in September 1994. The project has run 176 million dollars over its budget.

Development of the Kumtor gold mine began in 1994. Kumtor is one of the biggest gold deposits in the world, with more than 500 tons of gold.