“There will be no mining of uranium in Kyrgyzstan.” -- Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov on May 4, 2019
When the people of Kyrgyzstan’s Tong district confirmed there was a uranium-mining operation in their area, they protested. Then their protest spread to Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, and parliament quickly passed a motion to ban uranium mining in the country.
Mining uranium in Kyrgyzstan is a sensitive issue. The country is still trying to clean up several dozen contaminated areas where uranium was mined when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic.
The publicity about the work at the Kyzyl-Ompol site in Tong district brought the issue of uranium mining back to the attention of the Kyrgyz public. But it has also become clear that, legally speaking, it is not so easy to close down a mining operation in Kyrgyzstan, and there is more than just one mining site.
Tong district is located in Kyrgyzstan’s northeastern Issyk-Kul Province, the location of Kyrgyzstan’s -- and some would say Central Asia’s -- prime tourist location: the huge lake from which the province derives its name.
A company called UrAsia in Kyrgyzstan has the license to work the Kyzyl-Ompol field in Tong. The broader Tash-Bulak field where Kyzyl-Ompol is located stretches into the neighboring Kochkor district of Naryn Province. Canadian company Azarga Uranium (previously known as Powertech) holds a 70 percent stake in UrAsia in Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, reported that Russian entrepreneurs own 60 percent of UrAsia in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz partners own the other 40 percent.
In November, residents of the Kok-Moynok village in Tong district expressed opposition to the Kyzyl-Ompol mining operation. A village meeting that included district officials was convened. At the time, it became obvious there were several matters that were unclear.
The current head of Kok-Moynok, Mayramkul Kydyralieva, said UrAsia was only conducting exploration work; but her predecessor in the post, Taalaybek Kulanbaev, said exploration work started when he was the village chief. The UrAsia website reported that "in 2012, a more extensive exploration program commenced" at the Kyzyl-Ompol site. Recent reports said the license was issued to UrAsia in Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
Some provincial and district officials said the project was needed to boost the local economy. They suggested that UrAsia was guaranteeing that the safest and most modern methods would be used to extract uranium from the site.
That did not appear to convince many people in Tong district and, on April 19, demonstrations started in the city of Balykchy, on the western shore of Issyk-Kul. Several hundred people demanded that UrAsia’s mining license be revoked.
On April 21, activists in Issyk-Kul Province started collecting signatures on a petition to halt work at Kyzyl-Ompol. The activists hoped to gather at least 10,000 signatures, but they nearly reached that goal in the first 24 hours and by April 29 almost 30,000 people had signed.
On April 22, Prime Minister Muhammedkaly Abylgaziev ordered suspension of the work at Kyzyl-Ompol. In Bishkek on April 25, Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov met with protesters who had come from Tong district to the Kyrgyz capital. Boronov said, "I am stating officially that [Kyzyl-Ompol] is shut. The company has no rights for extraction or even geological exploration. We have withdrawn the license."
This contradicts information on the Azarga website that indicated exploration was being conducted in 2012-13, including "17 drill holes...at the Kok Moynok deposit."
Investors in the Kyzyl-Ompol mine project held a press conference on April 24 to say that after protests started, UrAsia had suspended work "in the republic until the situation changes."
Some people in Kyrgyzstan seem to believe the company more than government officials and fear the tough talk from officials in Bishkek will be forgotten once the controversy around the issue dies down. Hundreds of people continued to gather in Balykchy, some coming from Naryn and Chuy provinces, to join the rallies. On April 26, there was a protest outside the government building in Bishkek. On April 30, two groups demonstrated in Bishkek. The Green Party organized a rally on the central Ala-Too Square (and its leader, Erkin Bulekbaev, was later detained), and protesters from Balykchy rallied on Gorky Square.
Kuban Ashyrkulov, a member of the Mineral Resources Committee at the International Business Council, said that under current legislation in Kyrgyzstan it is not so easy to revoke a mining license.
"According to the legislation on the mining industry, there is no right to revoke a license," Ashyrkulov, said and told Azattyk that there were only two ways a mining operation might be ordered to close: "If the enterprise is not paying taxes [or] if some violations of the law were discovered and a criminal case was instituted that resulted in a court decision to revoke the license."
President Jeenbekov’s May 4 statement and parliament’s May 3 vote to prohibit exploration and extraction of uranium seem in keeping with the wishes of the population. But banning all surveying in Kyrgyzstan for uranium is not quite so simple.
As Ashyrkulov indicated, contracts have already been signed with companies. Deputy Prime Minister Boronov told lawmakers on May 2 that UrAsia understood the concerns the Kyzyl-Ompol mine was causing Kyrgyzstan's public and agreed to cancel the contract "without any [legal] claims."
But, according to Azattyk, there are 18 contracts for uranium exploration in Kyrgyzstan. Nine of those contracts are for exploration of uranium and rare earth metals. It is not clear how the hastily approved prohibition on uranium mining might affect mining for rare earth metals and other minerals.
So it is possible that Kyrgyzstan will face legal challenges to the ban on uranium mining.
The controversy that Kyzyl-Ompol sparked serves as a reminder of the legacy of uranium mining in Kyrgyzstan. UrAsia in Kyrgyzstan did not start an operation at the Kyzyl-Ompol site; the company simply resumed work that began during Soviet times. Such sites exist in many areas of Kyrgyzstan. The 18 contracts the government gave out are for sites in the Chuy, Issyk-Kul, Jalal-Abat, Osh, and Batken provinces -- that's five of Kyrgyzstan’s seven provinces. Many of these operations are simply reopening former Soviet uranium mining sites.
Attempts to clean up some of the worst of these sites started soon after 1991 independence. A report in late April noted that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development would be starting remedial work at the Ming-Kush and Shekaftar sites in Kyrgyzstan. The European Union created the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia in 2015 to help decontaminate seven sites in Central Asia: two in Uzbekistan (Charkesar and Yangiabad), two in Tajikistan (Degmay and Istoklol), and three in Kyrgyzstan.
The third site in Kyrgyzstan is Maily-Suu, where a Soviet-era uranium plant is located. Uranium mining started in Maily-Suu in 1946 and some 10,000 tons of uranium was extracted from the site by 1968. Many say the uranium used for the first Soviet nuclear bomb was mined at Maily-Suu. (Others say it was from Tajikistan.)
There are 23 uranium-tailing dumps and 13 rock dumps in the Maily-Suu area. The town has been called one of the most contaminated places on the planet. Residents suffer from a range of health problems.
It is still unclear how long Kyrgyzstan will prohibit uranium exploration or mining. Several parliamentary deputies have drafted a moratorium on uranium mining that would extend through 2070. Others want a permanent ban.
Kyrgyzstan has very few resources to export, and mining -- particularly gold mining -- has proven to be a boon for the economy. However, the Kyrgyz public has regularly shown resistance to any projects that deface the land and threaten the environment, and the government continues to search for a balance that suits everyone.