Kazakhstan: Hydrogen Sulfide and a Conflict of Interest in Berezovka

L. Korina
Kazakhstanskaya Pravda
January 29, 2005

PROTECTION ZONE

One could say that the situation developing in the village with the lyrical name of Berezovka is dramatic. Nevertheless, a recent meeting here between the Raion and Village Akims (Regional Governor and Village Mayor) and local residents was quite peaceful. That which may be called the primary problem was not the focus of attention, but was discussed tangentially. This proves once again that common sense always prevails. But then, let’s start at the beginning.

WHY ARE WE LESS IMPORTANT?

In accordance with environmental norms, a so-called sanitary protection zone was established, in due course, with a 5-kilometer radius around the Karachaganak Oil and Gas Condensate Field. Then it was reduced to three kilometers. As specialists explained, this was related to the introduction of modern technology to control emissions and, accordingly, improve the environmental situation. The change in boundary was cleared by the Republic’s Senior Sanitary Doctor. Nevertheless, this served as the impetus for serious conflict with the residents of Berezovka.

Inside this same unfavorable zone was the village of Tungush, whose residents were offered the choice to move either to the Oblast (Area) center or to another village. In May 2003, a total of 151 families celebrated their housewarming in Uralsk. Another 28 families preferred to be settled in a rural area. As such, Karachaganak Petroleum Operating, the company operating the field, provided these families with sound financial compensation. This is when it all began.

Some two kilometers separate Berezovka from Tungush. Indeed, only Berezovka’s stockyards fell within the restricted radius of the 5-kilometer sanitary zone. Nonetheless, those in Berezovka raised the question: why are we less important? Authorities at the Raion, Oblast and national levels began receiving their complaints that the proximity of the field is negatively impacting the health of the population.

The village residents formulated their demands at a meeting. There was no conversation about measures to improve the environmental situation. They saw relocation as the only resolution to the problem. It is possible to understand their thinking.

The distinct smell of hydrogen sulfide from the field may be spread great distances by the wind. But the smell of gas and Maximum Allowable Concentration standards are two different things. As environmental specialists explain, the operating company is only required to conduct ongoing monitoring of the environment within the perimeter of the sanitary protection zone. Yet the program to develop the nearest population points includes air monitoring for ten additional villages. Even after Tungush ceased to exist, they began to take measurements in the next village farthest away–Priuralny. Four times a day at that.

In addition, there are four automatic, round-the-clock observation stations and their number is increasing. Telephone lines were installed in the offices of all the neighboring village Akims with direct connections to the on duty official at the field. State bodies require from investors not only observance of the norms controlling the entire monitoring process, but also transparency of data: charts with the research results are posted on special stands in the Akimats of villages on the border of the protection zone, and are also published in the local press.

BLIND MISTRUST

Naturally, the Berezovka residents’ claims of deteriorating states of health were investigated. In May of last year, a team of 14 doctors from the Oblast center conducted a complex medical examination of the population. This method of examination was adopted in order to reveal a complete health status map. Eye diseases were the primary pathology among the adult population; illnesses of the nervous system among the children. The conclusion written by the medical employees states, “No illnesses were detected related to the harmful impacts of hydrogen sulfide on human health”. Incidentally, the level of illness among the villagers of Berezovka is lower than the Raion average.

But it should be noted that we examined only 843 people, stated Kashyr Azhgulov, the Deputy Director of the Oblast Department of Public Health. Two hundred twenty-five village residents refused a medical examination. Their arguments for doing so were all the same: we don’t trust you.

The chain of events leading to this blind mistrust can be traced quite clearly. Beginning in 2002, foreign guests from near and far have visited Berezovka. They thoughtfully taught people methods to fight “for their rights”. For example, in November 2002, representatives of the nongovernmental environmental organization ISAR conducted exercises to teach the villagers methods for interacting with government bodies, writing letters and appeals to various levels of authority, including Parliament and the mass media.

In summer 2003, a survey of the residents was conducted regarding the incidence of medical problems. Petitions demanding relocation were sent to many addresses. According to materials from Berezovka, a certain foreign environmental organization “Grude Accountability” has requested that the International Finance Corporation exert pressure on the oil extraction company (Translator’s note: the misspelling of Crude Accountability is as printed in the original article). In November 2003, two envoys from the organization came in person and requested that the extraction enterprise provide assistance in the preparation of a documentary film on global energy problems. In the process, they concealed their involvement in “Grude Accountability”. This suggested to KPO’s Public Relations Department that the true purpose of the “documentary film-makers” was to promote the interests of the Berezovka residents seeking relocation.

Attempting to clarify the situation and provide objective information on the state of the region’s environment, representatives from the regional Akimat, environmentalists, medical experts and KPO staff met with Berezovka residents. But unfortunately, far from all of the local residents listened to objective reasoning.

THE PRICE OF THE “SUITCASE” MENTALITY

The Akim of Burlinksy Raion, Saginbek Mutashev, began his report during the meeting in Berezovka with agricultural statistics. Unfortunately, the last year was not a prosperous one for farmers. If the average yield in the region was 6.4 centners per hectare Berezovka farmers harvested half as much–only 3 centners (Translator’s note: 1 centner is 100 kilograms). And this may not be explained in any way by the environmental condition, but by the lack of industrial farms in the region, based on modern principles of agricultural technology.

Since the field had been a huge construction project until recently, many people worked in the construction process. But Karachaganak’s construction phase has come to an end, and almost half of the village workforce is now considered unemployed. Many construction workers from other villages found employment at other establishments. In Berezovka they are simply waiting: what if relocation suddenly happens? It is only 25 kilometers to the Raion center. At the markets in Aksai, the price of agricultural products is even higher than in the Oblast center. Breed cattle–and you won’t end up losing. But several fear: what will happen if they are relocated? Running water has been supplied to all households. There is the opportunity to grow your own vegetables. But vegetable gardens are not being grown at each house. The Akim of the Village District, Radik Nurmukhamedov, spoke about the prolonged “suitcase” mentality in his report. He also mentioned the development of the social sphere. In comparison with villages farther away from the field, those in Berezovka are clear winners in the social sphere. The village has been supplied with gas. The investors have taken upon themselves all of the expenses for providing natural gas. The list of social projects completed with KPO resources is quite impressive. The school was renovated. Reconstruction of the kindergarten and House of Culture are planned for 2005. Children and pensioners are provided with passes to the sanitarium, all at KPO’s expense.

The concerns and problems that village residents consider urgent were discussed at the meeting: expanding the clinic, organizing an outpatient hospital, and ensuring housing for young teachers. The Raion Akim promised his assistance in resolving these problems. The Raion leader’s position on relocation should have destroyed the ardor of the potential new villagers.

Let us assume, he said, that a decision on relocation is made. Why do you think that it is necessary to move to the Oblast center? We have plenty of villages in this Raion that are located a substantial distance from the field. And working hands would be highly valued there.

The Chair of the Village Veterans’ Council, Petr Fonyak, maintained that families who are not afraid to work, live quite comfortably. And still one more gratifying fact was shared with me in Berezovka. Last year, students at the local school planted young trees along the river at the outskirts of the village. Apparently, the young people understood more quickly than the adults that they live here.

Translation by Crude Accountability