While environmental groups close to the government cheered the decision to move hundreds of tons of toxic waste from the shores of Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, no one expected resistance in the provincial city intended as a target.
Stepnogorsk and its surrounding district, which includes around 70,000 people around 160 kilometers from the capital Nur-Sultan, are no stranger to dangerous industry.
During the Soviet era, the closed city was a center for uranium mining and housed one of the largest biological weapons facilities in the world. Factories, many of them serious polluters, are scattered across the surrounding area.
Residents’ patience has long been few and far between because of the pollution they blame for health problems and brain drain.
Last year they were confronted with plans for a new plant to incinerate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – highly toxic chemical compounds rated as “probable human carcinogens” and immunosuppressants from the US Environmental Protection Agency – which were once stored in Balkhash.
“Maybe we’re tired of being destroyed by plants like that. Maybe we can have a few textile factories or greenhouses? ”Nina Orazbayeva, a microbiologist from the Stepnogorsk district whose parents both died of cancer, told Eurasianet.
The government and corporate forces that Orazbayeva and other activists faced during their campaign against the PCB incinerator were tough thugs.
The decision to remove the garbage from Balkhash was reportedly made by Aliya Nazarbayeva, the youngest daughter of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who still holds considerable power) and a prominent player in the green economy. The tender for the relocation project was drawn up by the operator ROP, a private recycling monopoly associated with Nazarbayeva, while the plan to recycle the waste in Stepnogorsk was supported by the Ministry of the Environment.
The base campaign that followed highlights the new challenges the Kazakh authorities face when pursuing controversial industrial projects across the country, including a potential nuclear power plant.
‘Hearing condition’ forgets to inform
The extent of toxicity near the shores of Lake Balkhash was publicly known only at the beginning of this century, when the non-profit EcoMuseum brought to light Thousands of electrical capacitors with PCBs in a secret anti-missile defense system built in Soviet times but never put into operation.
In 2007, Kazakhstan ratified the Stockholm Convention, obliging it to destroy all persistent organic pollutants, including PCBs, by 2028.
Most of the capacitors were relocated to Germany for use. But 300 tonnes of PCB-containing waste remained dumped on the Balkhash coast, and any major release of toxins raised the specter of environmental disaster.
At the end of June 2020, operator ROP, the collects Recycling fees for goods including imported cars and cables, credited Nazarbayeva and her association for environmental organizations by hand to solve the problem once and for all. Operator ROP hired a company called Ecolux-As to transport the waste to a warehouse in Stepnogorsk, it said.
The residents of Stepnogorsk had not been informed of the plan until the rubbish arrived in their city, but word soon got around.
Engineer Aleksandr Sizov and video blogger Maksim Ponomarev were among the first to visit the warehouse where it was stored. Ecolux-As invited them for a tour after they sounded the alarm.
Sizov was horrified to find what he called “a garage converted into something else” […] no kind of ventilation. There was no working fire alarm or security alarm. ”
Days after Ponomarev released Video of the site on his YouTube channel in June 2020, around 50 residents gathered in the city center. [Editor’s note: The author of this story, a resident of Stepnogorsk, participated in this and subsequent rallies.]
The company promised to remove the waste at a cacophonic meeting moderated by the town hall.
“You treat Stepnogorsk as something given, like an animal cemetery where you can take anything you want!” Shouted Viktor Molodovski, the combative editor of the local newspaper Prestizh.
Then the company rowed back.
Residents mobilized again, this time with a petition signed by 13,000 people.
Mid-July 2020, Mansur Oshurbayev., Ministry of Environment official called that the ministry, as part of a “listening state”, has listened to the people and will not allow the construction of the factory in Stepnogorsk. “Not in the city, not in its surroundings,” confirmed Ecolux-As owner Roman Semikin.
Ecolux-As promised to find a new location for the factory by March 2021 and to remove the waste from Stepnogorsk by July 2021.
In May 2021, as the deadline was getting closer, the then mayor of Stepnogorsk, Erkebulan Bayakhmetov, informed a gathering of local officials and citizens’ representatives that Ecolux-As had withdrawn from the memorandum.
Again, residents held an unauthorized rally, this time under the motto “We don’t know how to give in”.
The crowd, which included several hundred people, caught the attention of the national media. Nurlan Saburov, Kazakhstan’s most famous stand-up comic and a native of Stepnogorsk, expressed his support on social media.
Days later, environmental experts from across the country criticized the project during a zoom public hearing hosted by the provincial government.
The local authorities finally gave the residents what they wanted. According to the state’s environmental agency, independent expert reports had identified “inconsistencies with current environmental legislation” in the project proposal called in a statement.
Stepnogorsk is setting a precedent
300 tons of waste containing PCBs are still stored in Stepnogorsk; the lease expires in August 2022. It is not clear where and when the waste will be transported and processed.
The city’s information war took a heavy toll.
A rival newspaper from Molodovski’s Prestizh, Novaya, which gave Ecolux-As a platform and accused critics of raising the threat, collapsed before the project was canceled, its credibility in tatters.
Ponomarev, the video blogger, also needed some time to learn to sleep again.
The video reports he released about the project earned him several anonymous threats, he told Eurasianet, as well as public concessions that he was lobbying a Russian company.
“I knew that the threats weren’t coming from ordinary people on the street,” Ponomarev told Eurasianet, accusing business and government officials.
According to Sergei Tsoi, a former environmental ministry official who now works as an independent environmental project consultant in Almaty, the saga has ramifications well beyond Stepnogorsk.
Authorities can now expect similar local opposition to a number of incineration plants slated for large cities, Tsoi said, as well as a nuclear power plant if the government makes a highly controversial return to nuclear power.
“Authorities are constantly fighting fires [of their own making]. The residents of Stepnogorsk should have been involved in this process from the start. Instead of this [the authorities’ attitude] was: ‘We decided, you were told, now take care of it,’ “Tsoi told Eurasianet.