In Temirtau, a town in central Kazakhstan living under the shadow of a giant multinational steelmaker, residents don’t need to be told that there is metal in the air.
But the recent videos that they posted proving the magnetic qualities of the industrial dust lining their windows have helped to refocus national attention on the city’s ecological woes.
“Windowsill, magnet,” said a resident in a video she recorded, as she moved a magnet over the dark specks on her sill. “Nightmare,” she added, after the magnet sucked them up.
“This is what we breathe,” said local environmental activist Stanislav Voitsekhovsky in another video.
For as long as anyone can remember, Temirtau has been an environmental disaster zone.
In the summer, residents fear opening their windows for the belching smoke that they say intensifies during the night.
Periodic scandals showcasing the city’s air quality force the government to talk tough with the town’s largest private employer, steelworks operator ArcelorMittal Temirtau.
Experience has taught locals to be cynical about the potential for real improvements, but the magnetic dust revelation earned the town a spot on the state news channel, Khabar.
In a November 2 interview with the broadcaster, Voitsekhovsky described the dust as “particles of graphite that are kind of flat and have the ability to float. They fly out [from the steelworks’ smokestacks] along with the smoke and settle everywhere: on windows, on windowsills, and what is most dangerous – in the lungs.”
Back in 2018, Temirtau made world news as a city with “black snow,” a phenomenon that ArcelorMittal Temirtau blamed on a lack of wind that winter.
The following year, the company committed to a 30 percent reduction in emissions by the end of 2024.
This past February, a huge outpouring of rose-colored smoke that engulfed the steelworks was captured on camera.
Days later ArcelorMittal representatives met with authorities from the ecology ministry.
Senior ministry official Zulfukhar Zholdasov adopted an indignant tone following the meeting, threatening “severe sanctions for non-compliance [with environmental regulations] up to revocation of the permit.”
Zholdasov criticized the company for achieving an emissions reduction of less than 0.1 percent over the last five years after spending a reported 28 billion tenge ($65,000,000) on modernizations during that period.
But to date, sanctions from the state have been on the lenient side.
A representative of the Karaganda region’s government told Almaty-based journalist Vadim Boreiko in an interview for the documentary “Heavy Metal in Our Lungs” that the company was fined less than $15,000 for allowing the accident that caused the pinkish emission.
The fine that ArcelorMittal Temirtau paid for the black snow amounted to around $1.6 million.
These sums are small in comparison to the $177 million in taxes that the company paid last year – a figure that indicates strong profits despite downturns in demand resulting from the pandemic.
Temirtau has a special place in Kazakhstan’s modern history. Founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the son of pastoralists, was among the first wave of workers drafted into Temirtau during the late 1950s at the dawn of the national steel industry. That placement would launch his communist party career.
When he became president, Nazarbayev persuaded Indian magnate Lakshmi Mittal to invest in the steelworks.
Mittal has spoken with Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at least twice this year.
In February, weeks before the industrial accident, Tokayev called for lower emissions, better worker safety and a leveling of salary imbalances between Kazakh nationals and foreign employees during a teleconference with Mittal.
In April, they met in person. Mittal presented Tokayev with “a new investment program aimed at modernizing production and significantly improving environmental performance,” according to a readout of the meeting published by the president's office.
In the past, the company has been known to pursue its critics in Temirtau. In 2018 it launched legal action against Voitsekhovsky and journalist Oleg Gusev.
Voitsekhovsky decided to apologize for videos that he published alleging environmental violations by ArcelorMittal Temirtau and thus avoided a court appearance. Gusev won his case – a surprise development that observers said testified to authorities’ anxieties over tensions in the city.
In May of this year the company signaled a change of tack by holding its first meeting with environmental activists.
Gusev, for one, was unimpressed by the outreach.
“When it comes to environmental matters, we can only influence the number and type of trees [they] plant,” he said. “But [nothing] related to production.”
*Correction: Due to an editing error, this story initially said Gusev's case had been thrown out. In fact, he won the case.
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.