YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–Growing environmental concerns over plans by a Russian-owned mining company to build a gold processing plant near Armenia’s legendary Lake Sevan are prompting opposition to the project from some government officials, according to the head of an environmental NGO working to save the lake from additional contamination.
The proposed plant, to be situated about 10 kilometers away from Sevan, would reportedly include a reservoir for cyanide and toxic chemicals and a dump for cyanide waste. Those toxins could seep into underground water conduits and enter the 1,200-square-meter body of water, one of the world’s largest high-altitude lakes and the sole source for 90 percent of Armenia’s fresh water supplies.
According to Inga Zarafyan, chairperson of Yerevan’s Ecolur information center, warnings raised by her group and other concerned social activists have led Armenia’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister, Armen Movsisyan, and Economic Minister Nerses Yeritsyan to raise concerns over the project. The President of the Lake Sevan Committee, Vladimir Movsisyan, she added, has also expressed his opposition to the building of the processing plant so close to Sevan.
The GeoProMining Company, headquartered in Moscow, and with copper, gold and other mines in Armenia, Georgia and Russia, wants to build the processing plant at its Sotk gold mine, 10 kilometers from Sevan. Reducing transportation costs for ore processing is its reported goal. Currently, Sotk’s ore must be transported 263 kilometers south to another GeoProMining processing center.
Fresh hazards to Sevan could mean fresh damage to the Ararat Valley, which provides about 70 percent of Armenia’s fruit and vegetables and which takes needed irrigation waters from Sevan. “Armenia will cease to exist, if the lake is contaminated,” commented former environmental protection minister Karine Danielian.
The government has not yet officially endorsed or opposed the project but both the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Regional Management confirm that they have discussed the proposed processing center, Neither ministry, however, has yet received a written project proposal from GeoProMining, ministry representatives told EurasiaNet.
But the environmental protection ministry’s assurances of caution will carry little weight in the face of a December 2008 pledge from GeoProMining to invest $350 million into Armenia’s gold-mining sector between 2009 and 2011. Precious and non-ferrous metals are among Armenia’s top exports.
“They gave similar assurances regarding the [Armenian Copper Program’s] copper-molybdenum mine exploitation and the plant mine’s construction in Teghut,” commented Zarafian told EurasiaNet in reference to the ministry. “They promised they would not allow the logging of 670 hectares of forest, but they approved the plan and we lost the best forests in Armenia.”
President Serzh Sarkisian, for his part, has signaled that the government is keeping its options open. Speaking to residents of Armenia’s Gegharkunik Province, where Sevan is located, Sarkisian said the government’s decision to endorse or oppose the project will be determined by a cost-benefit analysis.
Sarkisian said the government will back the venture if it believes that the plant will be of economic benefit, and will drop support for it if it proves to do more harm than good.
According to Zarifyan the President is waiting for more concrete evidence on the Sotk plant’s economic benefit. She added that GeoProMining is now conducting feasibility studies to that effect and the studies should be completed by this October.
Environmentalists had initially looked to the Law on Lake Sevan to stop GeoProMining’s plans. Article 10 of Armenia’s 2001 Law on Lake Sevan bans the establishment of processing plants in the lake’s basin. Despite that, activists contend that the parliament may soon amend the law – under government instruction – to clear legal hurdles for the gold-processing plant. Opposition Heritage Party members of parliament echo that view.
Zarifyan echoed that concern, saying she believes the company will most likely lobby the government to change the law to allow for the plant’s construction.
Zarifyan also said that GeoProMining’s Executive Director, as well as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of its subsidiary in Armenia, GeoProMining Gold, have threatened to halt all operations in Armenia if they are not granted the right to relocate the Sotk plant to Sevan. Presently, the mineral ore extracted from Sotk is reprocessed in Ararat.
GeoProGold Board Chairman Vardan Vardanian has declined interview requests and has put an embargo on comments by company spokesperson.
Similarly, both Armenia’s environmental protection ministry and GeoProMining have refused to discuss the project or to address potential risks highlighted by environmental activists.
For its part, GeoProMining maintains that it shares the concern for Lake Sevan’s environment. In an April 26 television interview with Yerkir Media TV, GeoProGold Board Chairman Vardanian stated that the company plans to use mining technologies that will eliminate the risk of environmental damage to Sevan. “We will refuse to exploit the mine and will stop work if there is the slightest [environmental] hazard,” he said.
The former director of the Sevan National Park, however, argues that the area’s landslides and seismic activity may trump any such technologies. “No one can guarantee the [toxic waste] dump against an earthquake. The smallest crack is enough to have the toxins penetrate into underground water,” said Gagik Sukhudian. Fears of potential shelling from nearby Azerbaijani army positions underline that danger, he added.
To identify potential environmental ramifications, GeoProMining has commissioned research by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Hydro-Ecology and Ichthyology. The Academy declined to discuss the findings with EurasiaNet.
The amount of waste likely to be generated by the proposed gold-processing plant has not yet been defined, but former environmental protection minister Danielian estimates the total at 100 million tons over 10 years. GeoProMining representatives did not provide a figure. It remains uncertain whether GeoProMining-commissioned research can clarify the environmental-impact picture.
The company’s reluctance to discuss the project has only fired environmentalists’ criticisms.
SOS Sevan, an alliance of concerned environmental groups, is afraid that if GeoProMining is allowed to set up shop on the shores of Lake Sevan it will open the doors for other companies to follow. The alliance has said it is preparing to expand its advocacy activities to raise awareness about the dangers of the Sotk project.