Kazakh steel town fights to shake off Soviet legacy

Its chimneys towering high above the steppe of central Kazakhstan, the Temirtau steel plant spews enough smoke to cloak the entire city with a cloud of toxic emissions.



A giant maze of rusty pipes and billowing furnaces built in the 1960s by Soviet engineers who cared little about the environment, the plant is Central Asia's biggest steel producer -- and one of its biggest polluters.


It is now in the frontline of global efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions.


The start of climate talks in Copenhagen on Monday has given new impetus to a campaign by local ecologists and production officials to tackle the problem.


"We are a little-known but very filthy country," said Dmitry Kalmykov, a prominent environmentalist based near Temirtau in Kazakhstan's industrial heartland.


"It is far away from everyone, no one knows much about it, and it has some of the world's biggest natural resources," said Kalmykov, who will travel to Copenhagen to present Kazakhstan's case to international ecologists.


On a global scale, Kazakhstan is still a relatively small emitter of harmful substances, especially compared to its giant eastern neighbour China. But the rapid expansion of its economy and foreign investment have added urgency to the problem.


Central Asia's biggest economy, Kazakhstan is now the region's main industrial powerhouse and has attracted more than $50 billion in foreign investment into its oil and metals sector since independence from Soviet rule in 1991.


The vast nation, wedged between the Caspian Sea, China and Russia, inherited most of its production facilities from its former Soviet overlord that were -- like Temirtau -- built at a time when ecology was of little concern to Russian planners.


Figures on total Kazakh emissions are not publicly available and the government has not elaborated its Copenhagen position.




Twenty years since the Soviet collapse, Kazakhstan -- a nation the size of Western Europe used in the 20th century by Moscow to test hundreds of nuclear bombs -- is still struggling to shake off a grim legacy.


Temirtau, which means "Iron Mountain" in Kazakh, is a vivid example.It is now operated by global steel major ArcelorMittal (MT.N: Quote, Profile, Research) which has promised to improve the facility's ecology and find new ways to cutting greenhouse and other emissions.


The compnay says it has spent more than $100 million on ecology projects since taking over production a decade ago.


"It is easier to build a new clean plant from scratch than improve old Soviet production facilities," said Viktor Kober, in charge of ArcelorMittal Temirtau's environmental projects.


"People live here and they look at all of this. Of course they want to live better. We understand that. We want to be better and we want to live in line with modern requirements."


A drive towards Temirtau across a steppe strewn with rusty metal and plastic bags reveals a sight of colossal proportion, the plant's billowing chimneys dominating the city's bleak skyline dotted by dilapidated apartment blocks.


For miles around, the air is heavy with a sharp metallic smell. As in other industrial post-Soviet towns, residents cite ecology -- along with an array of other social problems such as poverty, drug addiction and crime -- as a major concern.


"You've seen what this city looks like. We breathe this air and drink this water," said Viktor Shetinin, a resident of Temirtau who works at a metals labour union.


"The company is certainly doing something. But they have to spend more to modernise it," he said.


Residents reported a rise in respiratory health problems this year, he said.


The 5,000 hectare plant emits a total of 270,000 tonnes of various emissions a year -- below an annual average of about 400,000 tonnes among standard Soviet steel plants.


Employing more than 40,000 people, the plant plans to raise production to 3.4 million tonnes of steel next year from this year's planned three million.


Environmentalist Kalmykov said Kazakhstan needed more global scrutiny to keep a lid on emissions but also urged Kazakhs to become more nature-friendly.


"People here do not seem to care much about nature, about the earth," he said. "Very few people here think: 'I want to preserve it for our children'."




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