MAC: Mines and Communities

Kyrgyz Republic Funded to Secure Uranium Waste Dumps

Published by MAC on 2004-06-17

The World Bank is funding an attempt to reclaim a huge area of contaminated land and watershed formerly blighted by uranium mining in Kyrgyzstan (see picture below).

Kyrgyz Republic Funded to Secure Uranium Waste Dumps

June 17, 2004

Environment News Service (ENS)

Washington DC - A $6.9 million project to minimize the exposure of people and livestock to radiation from abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste rock dumps in the Kyrgyz Republic was approved by the World Bank on Tuesday.

Kyrgyz waste uranium

The radioactive mine waste is located in the Mailuu-Suu area of the Central Asian country. The project also aims to improve the effectiveness of emergency management and response by national and sub-national authorities and local communities to disaster situations, and reduce the loss of life and property in key landslide areas of the country.

"Given the problem with high external debt of the country, we are pleased that this project is grant funded," said the First Deputy Minister of Finance of the Kyrgyz Republic, Emirlan Toromyrzaev.

"The USSR's first atomic bomb was made from Mailuu-Suu's uranium," said Torgoev Isakbek Asangalievich, a scientist at Kyrgyzstan's National Academy of Science.

Twenty years of intensive uranium mining near Mailuu-Suu could become an ecological disaster for Central Asia. Landslides and earthquakes threaten to wash huge quantities of uranium waste into the Syr Darya river basin.

The World Bank project is made up of key mitigation measures designed to isolate and protect abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste dumps from disturbance by natural processes such as landslides, floods, and from leaching and dispersal processes associated with groundwater and surface water drainage.

It will create a administered disaster management and response system; and develop and implement systems to detect and warn against active landslide movements.

The project will concentrate on Southern rural mountainous areas of the Kyrgyz Republic, including the Mailuu-Suu uranium ore mining and milling area in Jalal-Abad Oblast, where poorly maintained tailing impoundments pollute the environment and landslide activities threaten the stability of tailings.

Mailuu-Suu town is located about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Jalal-Abad and about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the border with Uzbekistan. The town has 25,000 inhabitants and is located near to 23 uranium tailing impoundments and 13 mine waste rock deposits.

Smaller settlements are located in the valleys of the Mailuu-Suu, Kara-Agach and Aylyampa Sai Rivers. In most cases, the World Bank says, the tailings and waste rock dumps lie upstream of the communities, sometimes close to populated areas. In Kara-Agach, waste rock dumps are located in the center of the settlement.

Students at the Mailuu-Suu medical college listen to the presentation of a brochure on public safety and the dangers of radioactive waste. January 2004 (Photo courtesy Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Hazardous substances from the tailings can migrate to local groundwater, be released downstream along the Mailuu-Suu River or be dispersed downwind by the prevailing wind as dust and radon gas.

"The project combines a mix of short and long term physical interventions as well as a number of institutional development activities," said Joop Stoutjesdijk, task team leader of the project.

"The Ministry of Ecology and Emergency Situations is pleased that a large portion of the grant funds will be used for civil works aimed at isolation and protection of abandoned uranium mine tailings and waste rock dumps in the Mailuu- Suu area from landslides and floods" said Minister Temirbek Akmataliev.

Without action, there is a high risk that uranium tailings could be displaced into the river within the next few years by earthquake, landslide, or flood events, with resulting major contamination concerns in and around Mailuu-Suu, and downstream in neighboring Uzbekistan.

According to project documents filed with the World Bank, "The 'do nothing' alternative is not a viable option for the area's problems."

"It is indeed important that early measures are taken to improve the situation in Mailuu-Suu and ensure the population that the government is committed to improve the precarious situation with mine tailings." Stoutjesdijk said. "It is equally important that a start is made with warning populations against landslides that kill rural people every year."

Despite the health risks presented by radioactive waste, public awareness remains low in Mailuu- Suu. Livestock graze on contaminated sites, houses are built using radioactive material and children wander freely over poorly-marked, dangerous areas.

As the isolation projects gets underway, strict adherence to environmental regulations will be enforced to avoid or minimize harmful effects on the environment, and protect workers, and public safety, the Bank says.

Contractors are being instructed to follow guidelines and contract specifications during construction. Embankments will be built, and erosion prevention measure will be taken such as minimizing vegetation clearance as possible, backfilling of excavated areas, drainage ditches to prevent water runoffs, surfaces stabilization with stockpiled topsoil, and, re-vegetation.

To prevent soil contamination from landslides or other site works, contractors must safely dispose of waste, particularly of chemicals, fuels, and hazardous materials, are stored as necessary in specific tanks, supported by staff training in the handling of these materials.

Contractors must ensure water discharges to the Mailuu-Suu river are not contaminated, and conduct water testing to verify the absence of radiological, or heavy metal contamination, and if necessary, install a wastewater treatment plant.

In addition, buffer zones will be delineated to prevent disturbances on tailings materials, including protective structures based on detailed geo-technical studies.

Further measures should be adopted to minimize sedimentation into watercourses. Air, surface, and groundwater pollution should be minimized, covering storage sites, preventing release of hazardous materials and chemicals. Periodic inspection, and testing will be monitored, in compliance with environmental guidelines.

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