A Matter of Life and Health: Villagers in Kazakhstan Fight Big Oil

by Leanne A. Grossman

The noxious smell of rotten eggs regularly blows over the rural village of Berezovka, Kazakhstan. The fumes come directly from the Karachaganak Oil and Gas Condensate Field only five kilometers away, which emits toxic hydrogen sulfide during oil and gas extraction and refining.

The oil and gas condensate field has been developed by Karachaganak Petroleum Operating (KPO), a consortium of some of the most profitable foreign energy companies in the world: LUKOIL (Russia), BG Group (UK), ENI Agip (Italy) and Chevron (USA). In 1997 KPO signed an agreement with the Kazakh government to establish refining operations on site.

Approximately 1300 people near the plant are living with migraines, dizziness, hair loss, anemia and the deterioration of vision. Village resident Svetlana Anosova, a music teacher and mother of three children and several grandchildren, describes other disorders that it is believed result from changes in the environment imposed by the oil operations: kidney disease, digestive problems, and hearing loss. Her daughter has epilepsy, which they fear results from the field’s pollution, but they cannot prove it.

Due to limited local health care, Rosa Khusainova, director of the House of Culture and a mother of two, had to take out a loan to pay for transport and medical costs to bring her daughter to a doctor in Russia and another in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to treat her severe skin rashes. To travel to Russia takes about three to four hours. To get to Almaty, they must drive or take a bus a good three hours from Berezovka to Uralsk and then take a three-and-a-half hour flight from Uralsk. When the doctor asked her why she does not move away, Rosa replied, “I don’t have the money to move or a place to go. I’m from there. Why should I move? The company should move.”

For nine long years Svetlana and Rosa have been organizing villagers to use every legal strategy available to them to protect their families from ill health and to ensure justice is done. The task of information-gathering alone is a big challenge in a country where government offices are historically built on secrecy, not transparency.

Zhasil Dala (Green Steppe), the organization they established, has had to conduct its own surveys of villagers’ health and of the poisoning of the local environment. Air pollution is not the villagers’ only concern. Mutations have emerged in their gardens. Levels of cadmium in the soil are at least two to three times higher than normal. Cadmium poisoning can cause symptoms ranging from flu to dizziness, headache, weakness, chest pain and pulmonary edema. High nitrate levels worry residents too. Emissions from the field are suspected of increasing nitrate levels in both open and closed water sources and in soil. When the villagers had their drinking water sampled by an independent laboratory in Orenburg, Russia, the results showed that the water was not potable.

The vast majority of residents want to be relocated to a safe and environmentally clean area away from the field. Green Steppe mobilizes villagers to demand that the consortium and the government relocate them. The group has initiated many formal and informal complaints to authorities, demanding that their human and legal rights to live in a safe environment be respected. At the Chevron annual shareholders meeting in May 2011, I presented to the board of directors the group’s letter asking for relocation. CEO John Watson incorrectly insisted that Chevron is in compliance in Kazakhstan.

The group has conducted numerous health surveys with help from Crude Accountability and scientists. Upon analyzing air samples that Green Steppe sent to an independent laboratory in California, the lab confirmed the presence of 25 toxic chemicals in the air in Berezovka.

In 2003 Svetlana’s courage drew the attention of the BBC. In a film on her life, the BBC reported, “What is certain is that across the former Soviet Union there are countless thousands like Svetlana who have seen no benefit from the free market.”

In January 2011, Serik Ilyasov, a worker at the oil plant, was killed instantly and another man gravely injured when equipment failure released a high volume of hydrogen sulfide. The fastening broke on one of the hydrants through which the gas passed. Records show that only one of the 25 hydrants had been looked at in a safety check. Despite the promise that oil and gas operations at Karachaganak use the best technology available, KPO no more ensures the safety of workers inside the plant than it does the safety of residents outside the plant.

Green Steppe has attempted to get justice through KPO investors. After filing three formal complaints with the IFC, the lending arm of the World Bank, which loaned 150 million USD to Lukoil for the Kazakh oil project, Svetlana and Rosa have decided they will no longer waste their time pleading their case before the IFC’s Office of Compliance, Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO). In fact, I met them in Washington D.C. in September 2011 when they came to testify at a session of the World Bank meetings organized by Crude Accountability on the problems of dealing with the CAO. Originally they thought that if they could just explain the facts of the situation to consortium representatives and the IFC, their concerns would surely be addressed. But they have found, over and over again, that even when officials express sympathy, no action is taken to ameliorate or resolve their plight.

Why aren’t these institutions required to be democratic? Why don’t they provide a fair and balanced conflict resolution process?

The answer is that oil and gas profits prevail over people’s needs and rights. According to the International Information Agency Fergana, “Karachaganak, which has 1.2 billion tons of oil and condensate reserves and more than 1.35 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, is one of the largest active oil and gas condensate fields in the world.” Indeed, in 2010, from worldwide operations, Chevron gained 19 billion USD in profit, and British Gas, 1.15 billion USD. In dozens of regions around the world, communities suffer the same problems. Oil drilling and refining is just too juicy a moneymaker to consider the people most affected by it. Another example of the BG Group’s greed is the 7 percent increased rates on consumers in 2010 when the biggest freeze in 120 years hit England.

While legal safety and environmental restrictions do exist in Kazakhstan, KPO ignores the regulations that protect the citizenry. When they are caught violating environmental laws, such as when dangerous gas flaring erupts, they tie up the bureaucracy by resisting the charges. Even in cases where they are forced to pay fines, the money never gets to the villagers. It stays with the corrupt national government. Hence, the government has no incentive to stop the pollution by pressuring and requiring the oil companies to comply with the actual regulatory limits.

The villagers’ single demand, relocation to a safe area, is neither complicated nor impossible to achieve. The multi-million dollar fines the oil consortium members are forced to pay could potentially cover the cost of building new housing and relocating the village outside the so-called Sanitary Protection Zone. Ironically, the name actually means its opposite. Inside the zone are the dangerous oil operations that release agents that impair the health of residents. The perimeter of the Zone is far too close to the village to ensure the safety of residents—five kilometers. It is evident that air drift and water flow transcend fences.

In the past year, villagers have come across large sinkholes, known to be associated with oil extraction. “I am afraid for those of us living in the house,” said Nagaisha Demesheva, who discovered a large hole on her modest property in December 2010. Imagine if that happened at the mansion of Chevron CEO John Watson or Lukoil CEO, Vagit Alekperov, the 6th richest man in Russia. What it really comes down to is this: Not all human beings are considered equal.

Green Steppe, facing the behemoths of the oil consortium and the Kazakh government at the local, district, regional and national levels, must employ a flexible strategy. While the IFC ombudsman refuses to act, Green Steppe is simultaneously pursuing other methods of obtaining justice. Calling on allies such as Green Salvation, a nonprofit legal group in Kazakhstan, Green Steppe sued the government for failure to protect its citizens. Two families and one business have successfully won the right to relocation. It is a significant precedent although there are still no signs of implementation. In any case, villagers will not be satisfied until everyone is relocated to a safe area away from the toxic emissions that are ruining their lives.

About the Author:
Leanne A. Grossman
is a travel and non-fiction writer who has documented women’s concerns and perspectives in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. She is a founding trustee and advisor to Girl Child Network Worldwide, an innovative girls empowerment model initiated in Zimbabwe, which turns victims of sexual abuse into survivors and leaders. Leanne serves on the board of Crude Accountability.

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3 comments on “A Matter of Life and Health: Villagers in Kazakhstan Fight Big Oil
  1. SonjaS says:

    The serious health problems people living in Kazakhstan have to deal with are not a single and isolated issue. Especially in Eastern Eurpoe, where infrastructure is still not stable enough to support a free market economy and where the government is not willing to pass laws protecting the environment because this would chase companies away, the population has been exposed to the multiple health consequences for over a decade – and there is still no change in sight.
    People living in the Chernobyl area still suffer from the severe consequences resulting from the heavy nuclear power station accident, for example. But in contrast to this fatal accident which mostly is associated with bad luck and inadequate security measurements provided by the government, the health problems discussed in the article above arise because of corrupt and non-caring capitalist oil companies drilling for oil in this area.
    Whereas the Western part of Europe has always benefited from the fall of the Iron Curtain and the introduction of capitalism, most Eastern European civilists have never seen as cent from the benefits of a free market. Actually, many claim that under communism, where factories have been on stream and provided labor, life has been way better. Nowadays, companies exploit their living environment without compensation so that the West can support its lifestyle.
    “Human dignity is inviolable” and “All human beings are equal” are commonly used phrases in our civil society. But reality is still different – some people are definitely more equal than others.
    Given that these severe health problems also affect human dignity and social justice, I think the UN or another organization having the power to do so should intervene in order to provide security and justice for the population that is exposed to this seriously dangerous lifestyle.

  2. sabrinabrett says:

    Thank you for shedding light on this imperative issue. The negligence and destruction of the oil industry is too often concealed and downplayed, as is its accomplice: corrupt government. In terms of the relocation process, has Zhasil Dala (Green Steppe) determined a potential place to relocate the villagers of Berezovka? Or, is that task assigned alone to the government? How populous is the region (number of villagers & surrounding area)?
    Is there an active campaign (in support of Berezovka) beyond the borders of Kazakhstan? A quick internet search showed me that there is little coverage on this issue.

  3. Kate Watters says:

    Dear Sabrinabrett,
    There is an active campaign in support of Berezovka, which is being led by Crude Accountability (USA), Green Salvation (Kazakhstan) and Zhasil Dala (Kazakhstan), the group highlighted in the story. The True Cost of Chevron Network has also highlighted the Berezovka story in their alternative annual report of Chevron, one of the companies in the KPO Consortium. Writing to Chevron and voicing your concern about Berezovka and asking Chevron to lead the relocation effort would be a way to help the villagers, although, officially,relocation is the responsibility of the government of Kazakhstan. The region around the Karachaganak field is not very populous, although there are nine villages immediately around the field, and the town of Aksai is about 25 kilometers away. Thank you for your interest in the story! Kate

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