BY GALUST NANYAN
YEREVAN—Environmental activists in Armenia are stepping up their year-long campaign against a gold-processing plant, which they believe poses serious risks to a unique lake that provides much of the country’s drinking water.
Their concerns center on an ore-crushing plant at the Sotk gold mine, owned by the GeoProMining company. The plant was completed this year but is at a standstill while the environment ministry runs checks on its impact on the surrounding area.
Gold-bearing ore from the Sotk mine used to be taken elsewhere for processing, but the company wanted to streamline its operations by crushing the rock locally.
In 2009, a project to build a plant for the complete cycle of processing ore into gold, which would have involved the use of cyanide to separate the precious metal from other minerals, was shelved.
Environmentalists still fear that the partial processing done by the new unit will release other minerals into the freshwater system that feeds Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus.
The lake is a major source of drinking water for people in the Armenian capital Yerevan and much of the rest of the country.
“The waste created by processing ore will end up in the lake,” warned Gagik Tadesvosyan, an environmentalist from the SOS Sevan group. “Agricultural land is being reassigned for mining operations, and that creates a carcinogenic environment.”
Inga Zarafyan of the Ecolur pressure group was among a group of activists who visited Sotk to inspect the crushing plant in October. They say the unit is in breach of a law protecting Lake Sevan’s catchment area from ore processing.
“The machinery will smash the rock, sift it, remove gold and silver from the ore, and leave all the unwanted remains to end up in Lake Sevan,” she said.
Environmentalists want the government to halt operations at the crushing plant, arguing that the nearby rivers Sotk and Masrik are already polluted with traces of toxic metals.
Zarafyan said ore processing at Sotk was expected to leave 100 million tons of waste material, which would leak sulphides, chromium compounds, cadmium and other substances into the rivers and then into the lake itself.
GeoProMining spokesperson Ruzanna Grigoryan denied that the company was doing anything illegal and said the technologies it uses are modern and efficient.
GeoProMining Gold says it has all the paperwork it needs to operate the crushing plant, an assessment with which Armenia’s energy and natural resources ministry agrees.
The environment ministry, however, appears to disagree. Its department that is responsible for checking ecological impacts says the company has been ordered to halt ore-crushing operations at Sotk until a thorough analysis can be carried out.
“The company has yet to present any documents,” said Henrik Grigoryan, deputy head of the body that conducts the environmental checks.
Kolik Shahsuvaryan, the local government chief in Sotk, refused to be drawn into stating his view of the gold mining operation.
“I try to adopt a neutral position or just not to talk about it. Let the government decide,” Shahsuvaryan said. “However, I have discussed it with the company’s leadership. Construction [of the ore-crushing unit] has been completed. I can’t say whether it meets environmental standards or not.”
GeoProMining Gold is clearly confident it will overcome objections to the new ore-crushing facility. It is expanding capacity at its plant in Ararat, where it conducts the more complex operations to extract gold and silver from ore, and expects annual production to rise from the current level of 30,000-40,000 ounces to 150,000 ounces.
Galust Nanyan is a correspondent for the www.yerkir.am news site in Armenia. This report was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.