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Mercury rising: The World Bank and the Nura river clean-up

2 April 2007 | Comment

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On 8 May 2003 the World Bank approved a $40 million loan for the Nura river clean-up project aimed to mitigate the consequences of mercury pollution. The river was heavily polluted by an acetaldehyde factory in Temirtau in Central Kazakhstan which had been discharging large quantities of mercury into the river for 25 years. The discharges ceased when the factory closed in 1997 but surveys of the factory site, river channel and floodplains demonstrated that large quantities of mercury remained in the environment. The estimated total volume of polluted soil is approximately 1.5 million m3, containing 9.4 tonnes of mercury. At the factory site, mercury concentration in the soil runs as high as 1500 mg/kg – the maximum allowed in Kazakhstan is 2.1 mg/kg.

The committee for water resources of the ministry of agriculture – the project executor appointed by the Kazakh government – is supposed to ensure that the contaminated soil is excavated and buried at a landfill site which is yet to be constructed 4 kms away from Temirtau. The river sediment will be removed from the river bed by hydraulic suction dredging, stretching from the former factory site to the Intumak reservoir 25 kms downstream.

changed the technologies without informing affected communities

The main purpose of the project is to supply clean water for Astana which was declared the new capital of Kazakhstan by President Nazarbaev in 1997. Astana is planning to draw its drinking water from the Nura river. Considering that there are other toxic and radioactive hot spots in Kazakhstan, we can only speculate whether this particular project would have materialised if not for the growing importance of Astana.

The project is broadly supported by the downstream communities which hope that decontamination of the river and its surroundings will have a positive impact on their health, quality of water and land. So far, no medical investigations into the impacts of mercury on the health of the local population have been conducted by the lead company. Regrettably, this is only one of the gaps in an otherwise rosy-looking development project.

Classified as environmental category A by the World Bank, the project is expected to be implemented in 2009 but construction works have not yet started. After four years of preparing the project design, there is still no mitigation plan nor social and environmental development programmes. The executing agency, which has started organising tenders for individual parts of the project, states that it is the subcontractors’ responsibility to provide mitigation programmes.

The World Bank divided this large, high-risk project into three parts and each part has a separate environmental assessment and public consultation process. This ‘salami’ approach impedes the assessment of the project as a whole and spreads responsibility for project implementation.

The Bank has also failed to ensure that the local communities have proper access to project information and are invited to participate in consultations over project design and development. After having conducted public hearings on one of the environmental impact assessments (EIA) in 2005, the lead company, EcoProekt, changed the technologies described in the EIA without informing affected communities. Originally, the company planned to drain part of the river to enable the excavation works. Only later it decided to employ the hydraulic suction dredging method without publicly releasing this information. As a result, the sub-project was approved by state environmental experts with an attached protocol from public hearings where the changes had not even been discussed.

Local NGOs complained to the World Bank and local authorities requested that a new EIA and public hearings be conducted with the full participation of the affected communities. After this the lead company financed an information campaign and made project EIAs available on the internet. However, the EIA was not re-elaborated and new public hearings were not held.

The clean-up of the Nura River has the potential to significantly contribute to the creation of a sustainable and safe water supply system in Kazakhstan but environmental and social risks should be taken into account in the project. Without the World Bank’s respect for basic public participation and EIA standards, the project is at risk of causing unexpected and badly mitigated effects. As a minimum, a project which involves the excavation and handling of more than 2 million tonnes of toxic materials at a distance of only two kilometres from a city with a population of over 150,000 people should have a mitigation programme.

Dana Sadykova, Karaganda Ecological Museum, ecomuseum@ecomuseum.kz, www.ecomuseum.kz