A Non-Expert’s Observation of Mining in Armenia
A few years my wife and I visited the monastery of Akhtala, a 10th-century fortified Armenian Church with impressive murals in Lori province. The church is situated on a hill above the Debet River. Near the river there was a toxic pool of waste from nearby copper mines. As my wife was photographing the church from below, a large black SUV pulled up. Two burley, well-dressed men (“hastaviz” – “thick necks” in local parlance) exited the SUV and asked my wife if she was photographing the pool of mine waste. “No,” she answered, “I’m photographing the church. Is it illegal to photograph the church?” “No,” they replied. They lingered for a few minutes and left. They were concerned, of course, about negative publicity about the mining waste situated next to the Debet River.
Traveling to a neighboring village we passed a valley with whitish-yellow mine waste dumped onto the valley slopes. I asked a villager if there was a plan to clean this up. “The mining company says they’ll plant trees, but who’d eat fruit from such trees?” he said. When I questioned locals about the quality of the drinking water, they were uneasy about the question and quite hesitatingly and unconvincingly said the water was ok.
From the hills above the Debet River valley near the once bustling industrial city of Alaverdi, in Lori province in Armenia’s north, we could clearly see smoke from the refinery in Alaverdi filling the valley. The owner of the refinery, Valex, had posted signs on the lamp posts in Alaverdi stating “Valex Loves You,” but smoke continued to fill the valley. Valex also owns Base Metals, which has a factory in northern Artsakh along the shores of the Sarsang Reservoir. During my first visit to that area a decade or two ago the water of the Sarsang Reservoir seemed normal. During a subsequent visit a few years ago, with the Base Metals plant operating above the reservoir, the water had a greenish tint to it. Upstream from the plant, on the Trtu River which feeds the reservoir, the water was clear and appeared normal. The plant obviously was the reason for the green color of the water. What was in the water? I cannot say.
Also in northern Armenia not far from the town of Odzun is the village of Ardvi, a site of extraordinary beauty containing the tomb of Catholicos Hovhannes Odznetsi (Catholicos from 717-728). My wife and I spent hours admiring Ardvi’s beauty while being amazed at the agility of mountain goats scaling Ardvi’s seemingly unscalable cliffs. Azatutyun newpaper reported that on June 26 villagers blocked the road to the village preventing a visit of mining officials from a newly registered mining company. The mining company wants to establish an open pit gold mine nearby which villagers fear will pollute the area and spoil the regions beauty.
A few years ago on our way to Kapan, in Syunik province in southern Armenia, as we descended from the mountains towards the city, there appeared a large “lake” in the valley to the right. This “lake” was a toxic dump of mine waste with a bluish green surface, but also reflecting a number of other colors as well. A man and woman we met nearby both told us of children getting sick and of difficult-to-breath, foul-smelling air periodically coming from the mining operation. Families, fearing for the health of their children, were leaving; for Yerevan if work was available there, or if not for Russia. This year, 2017, the greatly enlarged toxic lake consumed nearly the entire valley.
From Kapan we headed towards Geghivank (Geghi church) in the village of Geghi. On the Geghi River there is a large dam holding back green tinted water. We were told that this was from a copper mine. As we traveled along the road alongside the valley, another valley opened up towards our right. But this valley entrance was blocked by what appeared to be a large man-made berm or wall of earth and rocks. Presumably the valley beyond the wall is also intended to store mining waste, but I can’t be sure. Such structures appeared elsewhere as well.
Proceeding towards Meghri on the Armenia-Iranian border we took a wrong turn in Kacharan, passing the Molybdenum mining facilities. Near the factory was a good size mountain, with a good part of the mountain missing, as if a giant beast had devoured it.
Heading back towards Yerevan from Meghri via the new highway (M-17), passing through the villages of Shivanidzor and Srashen, we entered the Shikahogh Reserve which was stunningly beautiful. We neared Kacharan from the hills to the east. Two thirds of a deep valley to our left was filled with solid waste, presumably from mines, piled at least 5-6 stories high; much higher than the few trees which remained on the not yet filled in areas on the valley floor.
The current Republic of Armenia is a small country. With a 3,000-year history the sense of time here is in millennia, not in years or hundreds of years. When we Armenians think of the future we should think of the legacy we will leave 100, 200, 500 years hence. Yet those exploiting Armenia’s minerals apparently think only of short term profits, of their expensive cars, their palatial villas in and outside of Armenia, and profits at the expense of Armenia’s environment and survivability. Such greed will turn Armenia into an uninhabitable wasteland. Given modern mining equipment, greed, a lack of environmental enforcement, and indifference – it will not take long to turn Armenia into such a wasteland. Of course mining companies do make some improvements in some villages such as repairing roads and renovating a few buildings, but these improvements are short term. Environmental destruction is long term, maybe forever. Government officials, the judiciary, investors, industry, and Armenian political parties must protect the environment. They must honestly survey the damage, publicize the results, and take remedial action for the damage already done.
The August 2, 2017 edition of the English language newspaper Noyan Tapan, published in Armenia, is dedicated entirely to the Amulsar gold mine project under the headline “AMULSAR: Gold mining under criticism.” Three technical articles by experts describe the ensuing environmental disaster should the AMULSAR gold mine in the region near Jermuk begin operations. An additional article is about the investors this project.
Noyan Tapan’s front page includes the following plea, highlighted in red:
“Dear Reader. This special issue is completely dedicated to the Amulsar Gold Mine. We hope it will attract the attention of our readers including RA officials, heads of international organizations, foreign ambassadors, and the international Armenian community, and together we will be able to prevent the disaster.”
This issue of Noyan Tapan in its entirety is available on-line.