It has been several years already since Vostokredmet has mined and processed uranium. Many skilled workers have left the enterprise, and the salaries of those who have remained are meager. Most are forced to scramble to subsist, while wondering about the dangers of radioactive waste.
A major source of local concern is the radioactive storage facility located near the village of Ghoziyon. Radiation levels in the area have exceeded safety standards by up to 10 times. Some parts of the site are not fenced in, and they are covered only with an approximately four-foot layer of soil. Boys from near-by villages have allowed sheep and goats to graze in the region, and, as a result, livestock meat sold in regional markets has been found to be radioactive. In addition, a storage facility near the village of Degmai has been labeled a hazardous zone. The site contains about 20 tons of radioactive waste from uranium ore processing. According to the Head of the General Physics Sub-Faculty at the Khujand State University, Hotam Murtazayev: "It may pose a threat in summer period, when the heat reaches 45 degrees (centigrade) and the west wind blows dust from the upper layers of the burial-ground to Chkalovsk."
Concern about radiation is by no means limited to Chkalovsk residents.
It seems the more the regional infrastructure has declined, the more people across the Leninabad region have talked about ecological consequences of mining and refining uranium.
The permissible radiation norm in Tajikistan is 57 micro-roentgens per hour, while in Sweden the permissible radiation norm is fixed at a level of 30 micro-roentgens per hour. Nevertheless, in some suburban districts of Khujand, the Leninabad regional capital, radiation levels far exceed even the most liberal standards. The average radiation level around Khujand has been in the region of 25 micro-roentgens per hour. However, in few areas, especially those around the now-closed uranium ore shaft No. 13, radiation levels are much higher. According to Vostokredmet specialists, the radiation level around shaft No. 13 does not exceed 45 micro-roentgens per hour. But independent experts assert that the level is at least 80 micro-roentgens per hour.
Alarming levels of radiation have also been recorded in Adrasman village and the town of Taboshar, where, in the near-by Kuramsin and Turkestan mountains, numerous uranium ore shafts are located. According to specialists, the average radiation level in Taboshar is 50 micro-roentgens per hour, but there are many areas where the radiation level exceeds 350 micro-roentgens per hour.
Some of these areas contain open radioactive waste storage sites. For instance, in Adrasman three families live near such a storage site, where the radiation level has reached 500 roentgens per hour. Meanwhile, in Taboshar, experts discovered a radioactive soil container in a private home in which the recorded level exceeded 2000 micro-roentgens per hour.
Recently, municipal officials in Taboshar launched an inquiry that spurred regional environmental officials to action. The expert of the Regional Environment Protection Committee of Leninabad Muzaffar Bakoyev said that the agency has sought to impose fines on enterprises that have violated environmental regulations, including the Zarya Vostoka plant. So far, however, environmental officials have had trouble forcing violators to pay. For example, Zarya Vostoka managers have yet to settle the 80 million Tajik ruble ($40,000 USD) fine imposed on the enterprise. Environmental officials hope to meet with the enterprise managers soon to resolve the issue.
Meanwhile, enterprise managers at Vostokredmet agree on the need to introduce more effective measures to address environmental hazards. However, the head of Vostokredmet's ecology department, L. Pavlyuk, stressed that financial difficulties limit the ability of his and other enterprises to both safeguard radioactive waste, and to engage in environmental clean-up action. According to Pavlyuk, it would take approximately $500,000 USD to address radioactive waste-related issues in Leninabad. This is an enormous sum for Tajikistan, Central Asia's poorest country, where the per capita GDP is approximately $700.
Iskandar Firuz is a correspondent
for the Asia-Plus news agency in Tajikistan.