Authorities in Kazakhstan suspect toxic emissions of “dangerous substances” from Karachaganak – one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields – is to blame for the mass poisoning of children in the country’s northwest last week.
There were atmospheric emissions of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide beyond permissible levels from Karachaganak on November 27, the day before 20 children and three teachers were rushed to hospital in the village of Berezovka, Serik Karamanov, the prosecutor of West Kazakhstan Region, said on December 3.
The emissions were the result of a gas leak during flaring eight and a half kilometers away by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), Karamanov said in remarks quoted by the Uralskaya Nedelya local newspaper. KPO is an international consortium that includes Britain’s BG Group, Italy’s ENI, US-based Chevron, Russia’s LUKOIL, and Kazakhstan’s KazMunayGaz.
The children and teachers were rushed to hospital after they started fainting en masse at a village school, while other villagers complained of dizziness and nose bleeds. “Weird things are happening here,” as one put it to Tengri News.
Doctors initially blamed “overwork,” sparking angry outbursts from parents, but a regional health official later confirmed that an “unknown toxic substance” affecting the nervous system had poisoned the children and teachers.
“If a link between the emissions and the children’s mass indisposition is confirmed, then naturally we will be raising the question of the responsibility of the KPO company itself and its individual employees,” said Karamanov.
“We are deeply concerned that children and teachers have been taken ill at the Berezovka village school [a] few days ago,” KPO said in a statement on December 3.
KPO said it was cooperating with the investigation. Authorities have opened a criminal case into suspected illegal atmospheric emissions.
“While the cause of the incident remains unknown, we are actively participating in the Berezovka incident investigation and we are working in close cooperation with the [local] authorities and all relevant authorities,” the KPO statement continued, “supplying all the relevant data including information from environmental monitoring stations.”
“A mobile environmental monitoring station has also been despatched to Berezovka village and has reported no exceedances above the official Maximum Permissible Concentration limits,” it added.
KPO’s activities have long been controversial, with Berezovka’s inhabitants claiming operations pose a health and environmental hazard and demanding relocation. Authorities have refused on the grounds that the village falls outside the hazardous area in the vicinity of the field.
Crude Accountability – a watchdog that lobbies for transparency in Caspian region natural resources projects, and which has long been demanding relocation from Berezovka – issued an emergency appeal to President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other officials to relocate the villagers.
The poisoning “is the logical result of unscrupulous fulfillment of responsibilities by state bodies and the result of violations of environmental and industrial safety standards by the consortium, Karachaganak Petroleum Operating,” Crude Accountability said. “This led to further violations of the human right to a clean and healthy environment, which is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the environmental code and in international agreements ratified by the country.”