BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Roughly two months ago, the government of the Republic of Armenia enacted a flat tax whose regressive effects will hurt those least able to afford it. This betrayal largely hit the same people who supported those who came to power through a popular uprising in Spring 2018, then consolidated their success through elections at year’s end.
Now, there is a palpable fear that they might harm not only their supporters, but everyone and the country, the land, as a whole. The risk comes from a proposed gold mine which would decapitate a mountain at Ամուլսար/Amulsar. Those who write about and analyze Yerevan’s action seem to believe the government is inclined to approve this mine. Indeed, Prime Minister Pashinian said as much a few days ago, though developments since then give some hope that the battle’s not lost yet.
The RoA is no stranger to mines, and poorly or irresponsibly operated, severely polluting ones at that. Forget about the horrible mining legacy of the Soviet era. Just a few years ago, despite extensive protests, warnings, discussions, publicity, etc. the Թեղուտ//Teghut mine in the north was allowed to proceed. Its tailings (the toxic sludge which is a byproduct of the mining process) dam failed early in 2018, poisoning local rivers, and almost no-one said a word about it.
But Amulsar is in a class of its own with the hazard it poses, impacting a huge portion of the tiny fragment of our homeland still under Armenian control.
The widespread concern that the government is poised to approve the mine is based official Yerevan’s responses to the recently released report by ELARD, a Lebanese outfit it had hired to audit Lydian, against whom court proceedings had been initiated based on concerns that it had not obeyed the law. The report evidently finds that Lydian followed the rules.
There are reports that ELARD had dealings with Lydian previously, meaning it has a conflict of interest, and may not be the kind of unbiased evaluator needed in a situation like this. Plus, record of government discussions show that Prime Minister Pashinian wants to initiate a new environmental review (referred to by its Armenian acronym ՇՄԱԳ/ShMAC), but the law doesn’t allow it. Also, this latest report was not intended to address the mine’s safety, rather Lydian’s actions and if they followed the rules.
The good news is that a new ShMAC isn’t necessary. The original provides all the information necessary to shut down this process now. Here’s how.
Lydian’s ShMAC documents that in about 130 years pollutants generated by the mine will reach Lake Sevan, the country’s jewel, source of irrigation, fish, recreation, tourism… simply, LIFE. How will this happen?
It turns out that the routes water takes underground (see the accompanying diagram), starting at the mine lead it to cross the Vorotan tunnel which moves water from the Spendiarian reservoir to the Կեչուտ/Ketchut reservoir. From there, water is moved via the Arpa-Sevan tunnel to Lake Sevan. You may recall the tremendous hoopla in 1981 when this project was completed to save the lake whose levels were dropping dangerously because too much water was being drawn from it for various uses. Ironically, this “savior” might end up delivering poison to its intended beneficiary if Lydian is allowed to proceed.
You might be wondering why any of this is a problem. So what of the poison from the mine crosses the tunnel, right? An unfortunate fact of life is that tunnels leak, both in and out. So the poison from the mine would penetrate the Vorotan tunnel’s walls then proceed to the lake as described above.
You are rightfully wondering “What is this poison?” As with any metal, gold usually is not in its pure form when being mined. It is mixed up with other materials and substances. That’s why the stuff that is mined is called “ore” and must be separated into its parts so the gold (or other metal) can be extracted and purified. In Amulsar’s case, part of what accompanies the ore is sulphates. These are naturally occurring and are mostly buried and harmless. Some of them near the surface are oxidized and stable. But, when a huge pit is dug exposing the sulphates to the elements, specifically water from rain and snow, the stuff becomes sulphuric acid, a very strong acid. This is the poison that would leach into the groundwater and end up in Lake Sevan, probably killing off fish and other life in the lake, rendering it unswimmable and its waters unfit for irrigation. Also, with the waters exiting the lake used to generate a significant portion of the country’s electricity, I have to wonder what effect the acidified water would have on the turbines used in that process.
It seems to me all the government has to do is cite Lydian’s own report regarding this matter to shut down the operation. After all, why go through an environmental review process is the findings cannot be used to terminate a proposed project if it is found to be too dangerous?
As you read more about this issue, keep your focus on the sulphates-to-reservoirs/tunnels-to-Sevan problem. Other, lesser, hazards such as dust, local acidification, and other unavoidable mining nastiness can be remedied, they have engineering solutions (which is what should be implemented for other mines operating in the RoA). These are the problems being touted by some officials as solvable, ignoring the acidic elephant in the room.
But, you can’t stop water. It is a very insidious and powerful force. Think about the Grand Canyon in the U.S. Water created that massive channel. Think about the leaks you may have had in your own home, how difficult might have been to track down where they originated. Now think about whether it is worth risking a whole country for a very short term, and very small, gain. Much of the financial benefits of the gold extracted will not accrue to local villagers or the government, but to a few investors and a foreign corporate entity.
In case you need more convincing, take a look at the picture of the fishkill resulting from another gold mine’s leakage into the Tsoraked stream, a tributary of the Chknagh River in the Lori province of Armenia. That happened in late June.
What has to happen now is massive pressure. From the streets of Yerevan to Amulsar (where locals have set up roadblocks preventing Lydian’s entry for the past year or so) citizen action is required. From the corner of Lexington and Central in Glendale (where the Los Angeles RoA Consulate General of the RoA sits) to embassy row in Washington, D.C. and everywhere else in the Diaspora, demonstrations are necessary. This mine must not happen. I read that some action is already being taken in London, England. Good for our compatriots there!
If you’re too far from some of the places where such protest activities are likely to occur, write to your nearest diplomatic representation of our homeland.
It would be horrible to have survived Turkish attempts to exterminate us and extirpate us from our ancient homeland only to make it unlivable by our own hand through inaction and neglect in the face of corporate greed and corrupt governments that allowed this mining proposition to even get this far. Let’s enable this government to do the right thing and not betray us all a second time in to months.