BY JOSEPH DAGDIGIAN
It was recently reported that exploration for oil and gas in parts of Armenia would begin soon. Having seen some of the environmental destruction caused by Armenia’s mining industry, I have little confidence in Armenia’s ability to protect the environment from damage from mining and, in the future, from petroleum and gas production.
In the U.S. we are often reminded of gas wells contaminating ground water and negatively affecting the health of nearby communities. Should we not expect the same or worse in Armenia?
Following is a reference to a special issue of the Noyan Tapan newspaper regarding mining, together with some personal observations of mining’s effects in Armenia:
Amulsar gold mine
The August 2, 2017 edition of the English language Armenian newspaper, Noyan Tapan, dedicated its entire issue to four reports critiquing the Amulsar gold mine.
The front page of Noyan Tapan contains a plea, printed in red:
“Dear Reader: This special issue is completely dedicated to 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 this disaster.”
The proposed mine, near Armenia’s Jermuk resort area, requires that large quantities of cyanide and other highly toxic chemicals be imported, endangering aquifers and possibly the Spandaryan reservoir. The mine will use 600,000 gallons of water per day. Already there are water shortages in Armenia, which are exacerbated by oligarchs diverting water from farming villages for their own projects. Where will the 600,000 gallons of water per day used by the mine be stored or discharged? What chemicals or heavy metal residues will the water contain?
In return for the mine’s operation, the Armenian government is supposed to receive $50 million per year for 10 years ($500,000,000 total). This amount will not adequately compensate Armenia for a future environmental disaster. There are alternative sources of tax revenue and investment in Armenia. Noyan Tapan states, “We know that $10 billion dollars illicit money were flown out of the country from 2004 to 2013 and is continuing instead of investing in Armenia while our national debt stands now at close to $6 billion.”
Lydian Armenia, the company that is to develop and operate the mine, was founded in 2005. It is totally owned by Lydian International, which is incorporated in Jersey, Channel Islands – a financial tax haven and British crown dependency. If there is a major environmental mishap, or if the mine turns out to be unprofitable, the mine’s operator could simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. To the extent that a cleanup would be possible (which it probably would not), the cleanup cost to the Armenian government could exceed Armenia’s entire state budget.
Near Kapan, in Syunik province, a huge lake of liquid mine waste fills a nearby valley. Local residents told me that children are getting sick, and there is no diagnosis for the illnesses. It is believed that the mine and its toxic waste are the culprits. As a consequence families with children are leaving the area and moving to Yerevan. If work is not found in there the families, or at least the husbands, will relocate to Russia to find work.
A valley on the outskirts of Kajaran, also in Syunik province, is 80% filled with mine tailings. The height of the tailings pile dwarfs the remaining trees in the valley. Rain and water from melting snow collect in the valley, mixing with the mine tailings. Where does this water end up? What chemicals or metals are leeched out of the tailings?
The 10th century Akhtala monastery in Lori marz sits upon a hill. In medieval times this region was known as “Bghntsahank” (copper mine) due to its mines. Mining in the region continues, but now with modern, efficient mining equipment. Below the monastery, meters from the Debet River, is a mining waste dump. The Debet River is polluted. In nearby valleys as well, tailings are dumped onto the valley slopes.
The Sotk gold mine is adjacent to the new northern road to Artsakh. The mine is in Armenia, close to the Artsakh border, adjacent to the Tatar/Trtu River. Huge mountains of mine tailings are piled up close to the highway. When I was there, the Tatar/Trtu river water was grey. Since this was in the middle of a dry spell, it was unlikely that soil was being washed into the river causing the grey color of the water. The grey color of the water probably was from the mining activity.
On a number of occasions I have visited the Sarsang Reservoir in northern Artsakh. The first time, perhaps 15-20 years ago, Sarsang’s water was clear. The next time I visited Sarsang, the water was green, undoubtedly due to a new Base Metals factory on Sarsang’s shore. Base Metals, the largest taxpayer in Artsakh, belongs to the Valex Corporation.
Armenia is inviting more mining companies
The January/February 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, an influential journal of global affairs, contains a nicely done 11-page advertisement entitled “Armenia, Roadmap to Growth”. Despite the continuing environmental damage from mining, 2 ½ pages of the advertisement are devoted to enticing mining companies to come to Armenia and exploit Armenia’s minerals.
There are other environmentally damaged sites I have encountered which I’ve not listed. According to a U.N. survey, about 15% of Armenia’s land is suitable for agriculture. Some of this land is already being polluted. Valleys are being filled with solid or liquid mine waste. Many villages are without adequate water for irrigation while oligarchs divert water for their own use, and mining companies continue to pollute. Water issues will become more severe as global warming progresses. In the future, Armenia might have to contend with the environmental impact of oil or gas drilling as well.
The American University of Armenia (AUA) has a group studying “responsible mining”. Mining generates waste, often toxic waste, which needs to be stored. How long does this waste remain toxic? How long does this waste need to be stored? Forever? How long will dams or retaining walls last? How many valleys will be filled with toxic waste? I contend that at least in the Armenian context, “responsible mining” does not currently exist! How many “Love Canals” will Armenia be host to?
In 1968 Armenians commemorated the 2750th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan (Erebuni). In 2001 Armenians celebrated the 1,700th year of Armenian Christianity. Next year we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first republic. In the wake of irresponsible and unsustainable exploitation of Armenia’s minerals, including perhaps oil and gas, in 200 or even 100 years what will we commemorate? Armenia’s environmental destruction?