The losing side of the Kazakhstan oil boom

Jul 09, 2004 02:00 AM

by Burt Herman

Oil worker Bisen Zhekenov says his battle with Halliburton began on a hot summer day in 1998 when a leak of highly toxic gas at the country's largest oil field made him violently ill. Since then, he's battled the American firm up to the highest court in this oil-rich Central Asian nation, demanding damages for his ruined health.
Six years on, Halliburton officials have yet to acknowledge any responsibility and only reluctantly have confirmed an accident happened.

Human rights activists say Zhekenov is one of many Kazakh oil workers fired by employers as no longer fit for work who find themselves on the losing side of the Kazakhstan oil boom, which has attracted the most foreign investment in the former Soviet Union. Mokhambet Khakimov, head of the Kazakh environmental group Caspian Nature, maintains about 100 suspicious deaths of Tengiz workers have been recorded since 1996. He said autopsies showed the victims, mostly young men, died of blood and liver problems.
He maintains similar problems were found in 30,000 Caspian Sea seals that mysteriously died in 2002, raising alarms about the possible impact of oil production on the Caspian Sea. Tengiz is one of many promising oil fields in and around this inland sea. An official commission found no link between the seals' deaths and oil exploration.

But Khakimov argues the commission's conclusion is just another example of officials ignoring the problem. Foreign oil companies "have bought everybody -- local authorities, ministries. They know perfectly well that they can get away with it," he said.
Cases such as Zhekenov's, involving a major American company at the giant Tengiz field, are fuelling growing resentment among Kazakhs who accuse foreign oil giants of routinely circumventing the law and Kazakh authorities of ignoring misdeeds in an effort to keep the investment coming. Oil company and Kazakh officials deny those allegations.

Zhekenov landed a job in 1997 with Houston-based Halliburton, a subcontractor of TengizChevrOil -- a company set up by ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, KazMunaiGaz and LUKArco to develop the Tengiz field in western Kazakhstan. He said he was arriving on the job in June 1998 to operate pumping machinery when he first caught a whiff of the rotten-egg odour given off by highly toxic hydrogen sulphide, a gas that permeates the heavy oil at Tengiz and must be removed to render the oil usable.
"I couldn't breathe, hear. There was tormenting pain in the back of my head," Zhekenov said at his house in the village of Turgizba, 100 km north of Tengiz.

Later that day, Zhekenov was wearing an oxygen mask and taken to a hospital. Doctors diagnosed him with heat stroke and exhaustion and gave him a half-day off work. He saw more doctors after that but kept working until April 2000. Then, he said, he suffered a second dose of hydrogen sulphide while preparing an oil pump in an enclosed area. After 24 hours on oxygen at the TengizChevrOil clinic, Zhekenov was given a day off. His life from then on revolved around visits to doctors and hospitals.
Zhekenov says he was fired a year later. Kazakhstan's National Centre for Professional Diseases determined Zhekenov had suffered acute poisoning from hydrogen sulphide, which has weakened his nervous system and led to such symptoms as fever, persistent thirst and reflex problems.

The court judgment in the case found the original diagnosis of heat stroke was based on a few symptoms shared with hydrogen sulphide poisoning, not on a thorough examination. Zhekenov said he did not believe the initial diagnosis and suspected that doctors at the company's clinic purposely misdiagnosed his illness to play down health problems at the Tengiz oil field. Kazakh law requires employers to issue a detailed report on all workplace accidents, listing the circumstances and causes and defining its own responsibility.
But Halliburton did none of that, a Kazakh court found. It was only after the country's highest court ordered Halliburton to respond that it acknowledged the June 1998 accident and conceded Zhekenov's sacking was illegal. Halliburton also eventually completed an accident report, but left empty the field where it had to define its own responsibility.

Zhekenov's lawyers allege Halliburton's reluctance to follow the court order is intentional since a worker cannot sue for damages unless an employer's responsibility for a work-related illness or injury is documented.
"They are blocking any chance for us to claim damages," said attorney Aigerim Sadamova. A statement from Halliburton's Houston headquarters confirmed that Zhekenov worked for the company from 1997 to 2001 and said he was "reinstated" in 2003 -- without explaining the circumstances of his leaving the company in 2001.
"Prior to bringing his claim for compensation, at no time had Mr Zhekenov ever reported any work-related accidents or injuries which would have resulted in damage to his health such as that of which he now complains," the statement said.

Alexander Cornelius, head of the TengizChevrOil conglomerate, defended overall medical practices at Tengiz, saying the oil field workers' health was better than others in the region because of the superior food and medical care they get on the job. Tokzhan Kizatova, a former trade union leader at TengizChevrOil who now heads a human rights group, alleged there were many cases similar to Zhekenov's but that most victims were afraid of going to court -- seeing no point in trying to fight big international companies.
Cornelius, the head of TengizChevrOil, denied the company violates Kazakh law.
"There are people outside the fence and they want a piece" of the action, he said at his office in Atyrau, Kazakhstan's oil capital near the Caspian shore.
Serik Nokin, Atyrau region deputy governor, denied any special treatment for foreign oil companies. "Workers themselves have to be educated about their rights," he said.

Kazakhs make up about 80 % of TengizChevrOil workers. In 2003 the joint venture contributed more than $ 1.6 bn to theKazakh economy, including taxes and workers' wages. In Zhekenov's sparsely furnished living room in his village of one-story whitewashed houses, Zhekenov lowered his head and said he was a finished man.
"Any smell makes me sick. My nerves are strained to the limit, all my joints hurt," he said. "But they don't believe me. It's Tengiz, it's big oil, everybody wants to make money."

Source: The Moscow Times
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