Stepnogorsk: The dust from the waste pond can fly kilometres due to the wind. Nobody knows yet whether it is not full of heavy metal particles, radioactive residue from mining, or other dangerous substances.
Stepnogorsk: The lake is being gradually filled by soil, the sediments dry up starting at the edges and the wind can carry them away. The dark stain is the vanishing water surface.
What kinds of substances posing a threat to local people’s health can be found in the waste ponds? What substances can be brought in by the wind? This will be the topic, among others, to be studied by the laboratories at The Institute of Chemical Technology.
Samples taken by experts Jan Nezhyba from Arnika and Martin Bystrianský from The Institute of Chemical Technology from the nearby river Aksu. The river happens to flow near Stepnogorsk around mines with their waste ponds. Winds blow over them carrying dust from the waste ponds. This can result, among other, in contamination of the river or, in a worse case, of fish as well.
Stepnogorsk: Cow herds are grazing along the banks of the river Aksu, the locals take not only their milk but also their meat. The town Stepnogorsk can be seen in the background.
The manager of the partner organisation EkoMuzeum Dmitrij Kalmykov opened the meeting with the authorities, the public and the journalists and followed by Jindřich Petrlík, director of the program Toxics and Waste. The participants were presented with the results of analyses of samples taken during the Toxics Free Kazakhstan Expedition 2013, and how to prevent pollution.
Ekibastuz: In the forefront are representatives of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Emergency Situations. It is certainly useful for them to be informed in case of a fire at the contaminated localities.
Ekibastuz: The local people showed quite an interest in the information provided, the presentation was attended by representatives of many authorities, leaders of cottage settlements located near the former substation, teachers and the media. There were also people from local organisations, who have been pointing out the problems concerning the environment; they also appreciated suggestions on how to be more efficient.
Ekibastuz: Doctor Naila Dyusembaeva then talked about the effects of various toxic substances. They range from hormone or immune system disorders, damages to the reproduction system, luckily not demonstrated in Ekibastuz, and carcinogenic effects.
Ekibastuz: In the debate which followed, a dialog was started between the local public and the authorities. Also important were suggestions for specific measures which would be most efficient in preventing further contamination of the food chain by damaging dioxin substances.
Ekibastuz: During our afternoon sample taking we were accompanied by an inseparable cat and dog couple. This was very pleasant around 1 p.m., not so much at night with their loud audio performance. We were very often dog-tired – not only from taking samples and travelling long distances but also from insufficient sleep. Sleeping four hours a day is not much.
Ekibastuz: After being loaded, one of the expedition’s vehicles is looking as follows: egg trays, a spade for digging soil, sample boxes, cloths for cleaning up tools, rubber boots, water, disinfectant and many other things. In a moment we’ll be several kilograms of samples heavier.
Ekibastuz: An incomprehensible paradox: on the wall of a inoperative substation we saw the sign “For sale”. Last year it hadn’t been there. Could the local people consider a building contaminated by polychlorobiphenyls to be an attractive real estate? Or perhaps somebody would like to shed their responsibility and make some money in the course?
Ekibastuz: Not far from the railway track, next to one of the sample points, stands this underground shelter. We were wondering who would live in such a place or who could make use of it, even though temporarily? Track workers? Herdsmen?
Ekibastuz: Mental preparation for wading through mud, water and reeds, where Jan Nezhyba is taking sediment samples.  They are sucked into a glass tube, poured out into a wash-basin for the samples to be mixed, treated, and afterwards kept in tightly sealed sample containers.
Ekibastuz: For each sample it is substantial to provide data where it was taken and what will be the results of laboratory tests. It is also important in the protocol to determine the aromatic state of the sample immediately after it has been collected. Jindřich Petrlík is just testing one such lump from a salt lake near Ekibastuz.
Calm down, Jan. In mere 12 hours we’ll be there! Transfers over hundreds of kilometre distances are typical for the Toxics Free Kazakhstan Expedition 2013. It is a vast country with settlements far from each other. This time we are on the road from Ekibastuz to Ust-Kamenogorsk and further on to Glubokoye.
The expedition is somewhere in the middle of no man’s territory. Our journey leads us on a “highway” which looks more like a rough road. Luckily there is occasionally a car service at the side of the road to provide for a torn off axle, or a "kafesi" – a form of a service station (this may be a very rough but sufficient comparison).
The expedition’s vehicle, which played part in the Bosnia-Serbia conflict after which it had been sold, is just driving through Semey, formerly Semipalatinsk. The town was renamed in 2007, because in people’s minds it had been connected too much with nuclear testing and related health problems. It is also a city where in 1854-1859 Dostoyevsky lived in exile and wrote his novels. The town had become a large industrial site in the 1930’s. The Semey bridge in the photograph is more than one kilometre long.
The past several hundred kilometres may have been an ugly rough road, but this is more like a dirt track. Its length? Tens of very dusty kilometres. It must be granted though that in many places we could see road sections being built along the tracks through the original vast steppes.
Jan Nezhyba is just taking out sediment samples from the Irtysh river near Glubokoye. This place holds huge slag heaps from copper production. Here we gather material in close proximity to the heaps.
A lake not far from the heaps was probably formed from a blind arm of the Irtysh river. An analysis of another sample will show how many toxins there are.
Toxic heaps right next to one of the largest rivers in Kazakhstan. What delicacies from Glubokoye heaps may the wind and rain bring into this mighty river?
On their way to collecting reference samples (background samples) the expedition members had a “beautiful” sight of the Glubokoye foundry. There used to be a saying: If there’s no chimney smoking it’s not a proper city.
About 80 kilometres from Glubokoye lies a beautiful natural lake, used by the local people as the base for pastime activities. As it lies quite far from any factories this lake and another one not far have been used as places for taking reference samples. They will be used as the bench-mark for samples from industrial sites.
Some distance from industrialized sites, is this a romantic wild country?
We have to help each other.
We have endured our stay at Kamenogorsk fairly well, but we didn’t know yet what our more than a thousand kilometres journey to Astana would be like. As usual we started around 7 a.m., we had selected more comfortable routes hoping that 16 hours for the journey would be sufficient. So we stopped for a small lunch at Pavlodar. Here the shashlik-chef is in the course of preparing it for us.
 In Ekibastuz we took sufficient numbers of eggs for repeated analyses of polychlorobiphenyls and dioxins, but we hadn’t made a portrait of their bearers. This photograph makes it right. The eggs are from these chickens.
Most of the expedition, which arrived after 21 demanding hours, had their sleep and on Monday started for the lake Balkhash. They were housed in one of these dachas and waited for late-comers, who spent the day at meetings in Astana. (As the lover of good coffee I need to mention that Astana Rafé is one of about three coffee houses in Kazakhstan where they really know how to make good coffee, especially espresso doppio. At the dacha we drank only the so called 3 in 1.)
The factory on the banks of lake Balkhash is still standing. And it is still belching smoke in unceasing intensity. And the fishermen catch fish in the lake with similar intensity, with the fish ending up on local people’s plates (and to an extent in European laboratories).
Last year we didn’t have the time to take samples from all places at Balkhash, where many fishermen fish and where we expect high contamination. Jan Nezhyba, Martin Skalský and Ondřej Petrlík started out for sample and interview gathering at the opposite banks of the “Kazakhstan sea”.
Their guide was this ship pilot and fisherman. He is a real treasure trove of stories and information about the lake, catching fish and about fishermen – and actually anything occurring at the Balkhash and around it.
In the meantime the other group was taking samples from other children’s playgrounds. One of last year’s samples showed concentrations exceeding limits for industrial production, let alone children’s playgrounds. Local people didn’t want to listen much to this.
A crumbling chimney of a derelict copper foundry, built in Balkhash by the English at the end of the 19th century. The current foundry of non-ferrous metals Kazakhmys is in the background.
Another day and more sample gathering. This time we are on the banks of Balkhash again but 30 to 40 kilometres from the city of the same name; we are drawing near to a former radar base Daryal U. Its output was in the order of tens of megawatts (you could almost say that grilled birds could fall into the crew’s mouths, such was the amount of energy). Today one of the warehouses stores tens and hundreds of rusty barrels with polychlorobiphenyls.
The Institute of Chemical Technology and other laboratories will establish from the contents of this flask whether and how much of polychlorobiphenyls get into the environment.
The director of the programme Toxics and Waste is writing on the sample box to match it exactly with the sample protocol and in order to avoid confusion. The protocol also holds the exact GPS position and other at minimum ten pieces of data.

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