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Last Updated: Monday, 3 January, 2005, 12:56 GMT
Uzbeks promise smelter clean-up
By Alex Kirby
BBC News website environment correspondent, in Tashkent

General view of Almalyk   Kieran Cooke
Almalyk is one of Central Asia's dirtiest towns
A senior official at one of Central Asia's pollution hotspots has promised a clean-up will be completed by 2010.

Sergei Dobija, vice-director of the Almalyk copper smelter in the eastern part of Uzbekistan, said the country was working alone to improve the plant.

He said solving air pollution in the area would cost $40m, and there was a huge pile of toxic waste to be tackled.

Local people say the air is so bad they sometimes cannot leave their homes, and they complain of skin diseases as well.

Strategic past

Mr Dobija told journalists visiting the plant, about an hour's drive from here: "If we can do all we need to do, this area will be comparable to Switzerland.

"Air pollution is the main problem, but there's half a million tonnes of accumulated metallurgical waste, too.

I don't notice any pollution - in fact, when I go away and breathe fresh air, I feel ill
Alexander Filimonov, smelter executive
"We've developed the technology to reprocess it, but the job will cost a total of $160m. The entire clean-up is being paid for out of our own funds."

The smelter, which international organisations say is one of central Asia's most serious environmental problems, started up in the late 1940s, when the Soviet Union was stripping the area of its raw materials and using it as a waste tip.

The plant employs 24,000 workers, and the town of Almalyk which grew up around it now has about 100,000 people, some working in the next-door chemical factory and cement works.

Mother and baby   Kieran Cooke
Some residents fear for their health
The smell of sulphuric acid hangs heavy in the air, and local experts report a high incidence of respiratory ailments, asthma and TB, and also skin diseases.

But no figures were available at the town's hospital to support or refute the claims - not surprising in a country with a grim human rights record.

One Almalyk resident said things used to be better in Soviet days: "They discharged the sulphur fumes only at night 15 years ago, but now they do it whenever they like."

Another, Naila, said: "There are many times when I won't leave my apartment because the air is so bad. It's not right that children have to live in these conditions."

Silver lining

But Alexander Filimonov, an executive at the smelter, says: "We all get used to the smell after a while.

Soviet monument   Kieran Cooke
Soviet methods evoke nostalgia
"I don't notice any pollution - in fact, when I go away and breathe fresh air, I feel ill.

"The fumes actually do some good: they kill off the insects in the cotton fields round Almalyk."

He says early retirement, medicine and special privileges are available to staff working in highly polluted parts of the smelter.

The Uzbek government says the national economy needs Almalyk to stay in business, as do its workers.

In the nearby quarries which produce ore for the smelter, officials say, some workers earn up to $500 a month, with many others taking home $200.

In a country where the average income is $400 a year, and nearly 30% of the people live below the poverty line, that sort of money understandably speaks volumes.

Images courtesy and copyright of Kieran Cooke.

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