YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Responding to an outcry and dire warnings from ecologists, the Armenian authorities have moved to repair a toxic waste burial site near Yerevan that appears to have been dug up by unknown intruders several months ago.
The Soviet-era industrial grave located near the city’s southern Nubarashen suburb contains more than 500 metric tons of DDT and other poisonous substances that had been used by Armenian chemical enterprises.
An Armenian journalist and several environmentalists discovered late last month that unknown individuals had broken into the site, tearing down its fencing and flattening a mound of land covering the waste with bulldozers or other heavy machinery. The intrusion, possible reasons for which are not clear, left the chemicals dangerously exposed.
“The site was deliberately dug up,” said Edik Baghdasarian, a prominent journalist whose Hetq.am publication was the first to report the emergency. “I still can’t understand who got in, removed the two-meter layer of land and unearthed those poisonous chemicals.”
“Some people intruded the site with heavy trucks, felled the fence and dug up the site,” said Karine Danielian of the environment protection Association for Sustainable Human Development. “Now poison has come up to the surface.”
“This is a serious environmental disaster,” Danielian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. She said the toxic substances are being washed away by rainwater and are threatening to pollute the whole area.
The Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection acknowledged the gravity of the situation on Thursday. “The site must definitely be closed up,” Anahit Aleksandrian, the head of a ministry department dealing with toxic waste disposal, told RFE/RL. “There must definitely be taken under control because the situation is dangerous.”
The government approved 31.6 million ($82,000) in emergency funding for that purpose at a weekly meeting held earlier on Thursday. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan also ordered the ministries of environment, emergencies and agriculture to jointly devise within the next six months a plan to destroy the chemicals buried at the Nubarashen site. He said the destruction process will be costly and require funding from Armenia’s foreign donors.
Aleksandrian revealed that the ministry discovered the damage caused to the burial site two months ago, raising more questions about the authorities’ failure to act earlier. “Local residents have not been warned about how dangerous that site is and have continued to graze cattle there,” complained Danielian.
Baghdasarian likewise accused the Ministry of Environment Protection and other government agencies of neglect. He argued that they did not need a government order or funding to cordon off the grave and issue warnings to residents of Nubarashen and nearby villages.
“Our authorities don’t realize that when it comes to disasters, the first thing they must do is to warn the population of the dangers,” said Baghdasarian. “They should have at least told villagers not to collect hay or graze their cattle there. I’m astonished that they haven’t done that for two months.”
Aleksandrian gave no clear reasons for the belated government response. She said only that it is wrong to accuse her ministry of inaction and single it out for blame. “That’s everyone’s problem, including the ministries of health, agriculture, environment and emergencies and the [Yerevan] municipality,” the official said.
The recently appointed Emergencies Minister Armen Yeritsian acknowledged “serious shortcomings” in the authorities’ response to the situation on Friday during an emergency meeting of senior government officials and representatives of relevant non-governmental groups. “We should have put up banners warning people to stay away [from the site,] we should have informed the population,” he said, adding that officials from his ministry did that only on Thursday.
Yeritsian, who served as a deputy chief of the Armenian police before taking up the current post, also called for the formal launch of a criminal investigation into the site invasion. Colonel Aghasi Kirakosian, a senior police official attending the meeting, assured him that the police are taking “all necessary measures envisaged by law” to identify and punish the culprits.
For his part, Deputy Health Minister Hayk Darpinian told the meeting that sanitary inspectors from his ministry have examined the area and people living in the vicinity over the past ten days. He said they found high concentrations of DDT in the air and irrigation water used by three nearby villages.
“This means there is a problem,” said Darpinian. “It is aggravated by the fact that layers of land there are sliding down and spreading intoxicated soil.”
Darpinian assured participants that local residents have reported no contamination-induced health problems yet. But Yelena Manvelian, who heads a women’s NGO involved in environment protection, challenged this assertion, saying that locals have for years complained of frequent headaches, nausea and other health disorders.
“They don’t know what the problem is,” said Manvelian. “They just don’t feel well. The residents have absolutely not been informed about the dangers involved. No agency has warned them against using fruit and vegetables grown in that area. I am surprised by your serenity.”
“I’m not underestimating the danger,” replied Darpinian. “I’m only trying to prevent unnecessary panic.”
The NGO concerns were echoed by Sergei Kapinos, the head of the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also present at the discussion. “The situation got out of control,” he said. “It’s an emergency situation. It’s a real danger that can not be presented in mild terms.”