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Oil Boom Puts Caspian Sea Ecosystem at Risk

By Elizabeth Piper

ALMATY, Kazakhstan, December 14, 1998 - Oil companies' activity in the landlocked Caspian Sea threatens to destroy its fragile ecology and whole species of birds and animals if preventative steps are not taken, Kazakh and foreign officials said on Thursday.

The Caspian, which is bordered by Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran, has become a focus for international oil majors who hope to tap huge reserves of black gold beneath its sea bed.

But Kazakh officials, who are eager to encourage western investment, said companies would have to cooperate with proposed government programmes to protect the Caspian.

"We need to take concrete steps to protect this special region of the Caspian Sea...to make sure accidents do not happen," Kazakh Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev said in a letter addressing a conference discussing oil spill prevention.

He urged all five countries surrounding the sea to agree on measures to regulate oil and metal exploration in the region.

Shalbai Kulmakhanov, chairman of the government committee for emergencies, told the conference the government hoped to pass environmental standards into law, which companies working the region would have to comply with.

"We need to regulate the work of companies and ensure there is cooperation between the companies and the government."

Some foreign companies working in the region have already started to research the environmental side of their activities.

Serikbek Daukeyev, Minister for ecology and natural resources said: "In principle I am happy with the foreign companies which work with us, they have paid a huge amount for ecological protection."

The Offshore Kazakhstan International Operating Company, set up to develop oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, was one company which had carried out enviromental tests, he said.

OKIOC unites U.S.-based Phillips Petroleum, Japan's Inpex, Italy's Agip, British Gas, an alliance of BP and Statoil, as well as Mobil, Shell and Total.

The consortium said it had found environmental contamination in the Northeast Caspian had been less then previously recorded and similar to background levels in other marine areas.

But Western scientists and doctors said the increased growth of diseases among the region's population reflected the already damaged natural balance.

According to conference organisers, cases of blood disease, tuberculosis and other diseases are four times more common in the Caspian area than on average in Kazakhstan.

The water, contaminated by oil products but used as drinking water by the population, has become the reason for high rates of intestinal infections, the Caspian Environment Programme said.

"The ecological situation in the Caspian is not very safe at the moment, the dirtiest water in Kazakhstan is in the Caspian...already huge numbers of fish have died," Daukeyev said.