Four years on, the mystery over a village in Kazakhstan where dozens of children suddenly grew ill and lost consciousness has been revisited by activists who say they have certain proof the symptoms indicate poisoning from a nearby oil and gas field.
Crude Accountability, a Virginia-based watchdog focusing on hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian Sea basin, said in a report on April 24 that recent medical examinations have revealed that two young girls affected have been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by chemical poisoning.
“The doctor who saw them indicated that the disease was likely caused by exposure to hydrocarbons and their fumes,” the watchdog said.
The village of Beryozovka, where 25 children and four adults succumbed to illness on November 28, 2014, is located around five kilometers from Karachaganak. That field is being jointly developed by Italy’s Eni and British-Dutch multinational oil and gas company Shell, which each own 29.25 percent stakes, Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz (10 percent), U.S. major Chevron Corp (18 percent) and Russia’s Lukoil (13.5 percent).
Authorities at the time linked the apparent mass poisoning to a possible leak from the boiler at the local school. Nonetheless, two years after the incident occurred, the government relocated the residents of Beryozovka to another location.
Crude Accountability argues that the state has been engaged in a cover-up. It said in its latest statement on this episode that despite continued signs of symptoms, including convulsions, headaches, blood pressure surges and loss of consciousness, state hospitals in Kazakhstan declined to issue a “proper diagnosis or [prescribe] correct treatment.” The $1,700 needed to pay for diagnostics at a Moscow clinic for two children, Albina Iskakova and Alina Kusmangaliyeva, was raised through a crowdfunding exercise, the watchdog said.
Police opened an investigation into the apparent mass poisoning in 2015 but closed the file on April 11 after concluding that they had no evidence with which to pursue a criminal probe.
Kazakhstan’s health authorities have been quick in trying to quash these latest accusations. A representative for health department of the West Kazakhstan Region, Gulnar Abrahmanova, said on April 26 that medical examinations conducted by doctors in Kazakhstan only last year showed that the illnesses recorded in 2014 had nothing to do with poisoning. Abrahmanova said that the prevalent condition identified by doctors is vegetative-vascular dystonia, a condition affecting the automatic nervous system. This condition occurs most frequently due to emotional stress, anxiety and depression, she said.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.