Kyrgyzstan: Radioactive Coal Scandal Eclipses Older Radioactive Woes
Kyrgyzstan's opposition politicians are outraged. Late last year hundreds of tons of coal with higher than normal levels of radioactivity found their way from a mine in Kazakhstan to the electricity and heating plant in Bishkek. When the media and public demanded the coal be removed from the city, it was reportedly transferred to the boiler rooms of 14 schools, a kindergarten and an orphanage. The opposition politicos have seized the story, bellowing that generations of children will be contaminated. They propose theories that are impossible to verify, and offer all sorts of unsubstantiated statistics on how radioactive the coal is. According to the Emergencies Situations Ministry, the coal is emitting background radiation three to five times higher than normal. Is the coal dangerous? Possibly. But considering Kyrgyzstan’s legacy of mismanaging radioactive waste, the arguments ring a little hollow. In former Soviet uranium mining towns dotting mountainous Kyrgyzstan, impoverished families live with the threat of radioactive contamination every day, for their whole lives, and experience more associated illnesses than people living in other areas.In Mailuu Suu, for example, in southern Jalal-Abad Province, Soviet miners dumped 2 million cubic meters of uranium tailings, a radioactive byproduct, along streams, and in the hills above, where they remain today. In addition, workers sprinkled almost a million cubic meters of uranium waste atop 13 other dumps, on land still exposed to the rain and annual mudslides. Radioactive levels are 30 times above normal in the town. The former mayor says most of her family members died in their 50s. Cancer is common. Min Kush, once a fabled destination for Soviet workers enjoying extra perks, offers a similar story of tragedy. Today, there is little work other than digging at a few small coal mines. The town suffers 70 percent unemployment. But that coal, which a local doctor fears could be radioactive, is sold on the open market in Kyrgyzstan. The waste, of course, was left behind by another country, the Soviet Union. But Kyrgyzstan has inherited the dangers and the residents of Mailuu Suu and Min Kush look to their politicians for help. Kamchybek Tashiev of the opposition Ata-Jurt party (who happens to be from Jalal-Abad, not far from Mailuu Suu) is someone who could help, but he’s busy finding reasons to be outraged about the Kazakh coal, using the scandal to trash Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov. Accusing Babanov of committing a "state crime," Tashiev says the new prime minister's government gave a “direct order” to place the radioactive coal in schools and orphanages. “I appeal to all citizens of the country – we must protect our children's future. If you keep silent today, tomorrow we will be slaves of the state criminals,” Tashiev wrote in AKIpress last week. He has repeatedly called for Babanov’s resignation and threatened street protests should Babanov not budge. The government has started to remove the coal from the schools. One official has been jailed, a scapegoat that will hardly pacify Tashiev. Unsurprisingly, Kazakhstan is in no hurry to take the coal back. The villagers in Mailuu Suu and Min Kush have little leverage while this game plays out in Bishkek. They are in remote valleys, nowhere near a major highway they could block to demonstrate their frustration. But their grievances remain. And if Tashiev would address them – perhaps creating jobs to clean up the tailings zones – he’d leave a legacy that all Kyrgyzstanis can enjoy and appreciate, for many more generations.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.