ARMENIA: COPPER MINE SPARKS ENVIRONMENTAL OUTCRY
The Armenian Ministry of Environmental Protection’s recent decision to give the go-ahead to the development of a copper-molybdenum mine in northern Armenia has sparked considerable concern among environmentalists and related non-governmental organizations.
“We consider the program of operation for the Teghut copper-molybdenum mine to be illegal,” commented Hakob Sanasaryan, president of the Union of the Greens of Armenia, an activist group. “It is being implemented with gross violations of the law and without any environmental impact studies.”
The Teghut copper-molybdenum mine, located in the mountainous northern region of Lori, more than 200 kilometers north of Yerevan, was well known in Soviet times. At that time, its copper reserves were estimated at 450-500 million tons. In the 1970s, a ban was placed on development of the mine to preserve the surrounding virgin forests and the fauna they contained.
However, in the push to adapt to economic changes, that ban has now been lifted.
“We were asked ‘Is it worth or not?’ We said, ‘Yes, it is,’” Minister of Environmental Protection Vardan Ayvazian told a June 2006 press conference in response to a question about the development of the Teghut mine. Final government approval for exploitation of the territory came in November 2006. “Wealth is contained here, and the environmental damage must be compensated.”
No one doubts the mine’s earning potential. Currently, the established reserves in Teghut make 1.6 million tonnes of copper and 99,000 tonnes of molybdenum, a metal primarily incorporated into alloys to strengthen steel for pipelines and planes, among other uses. Teghut’s reserves rank it as Armenia’s second largest copper-molybdenum mine after the Zangezur mine in the town of Kajaran, according to Gagik Arzumanyan, director of Armenian Copper Program (ACP), the Armenian company awarded the tender to develop the mine in 2001.
With copper prices running at record highs in recent years, tens of millions are expected in estimated profits, with a sizeable hunk of that amount going to the state in taxes. On February 22, copper was selling for $5.61 per metric tonne on the London Metal Exchange.
ACP, part of a larger group of companies with operations in Armenia, Russia and Liechtenstein, plans to run the mine for 25-30 years as an open-pit mine, a far less expensive operating method, but one which removes the upper layer of earth, uprooting hectares of lime, beech, maple and nut trees.
Environmentalists claim that 510 hectares of humus-rich, forest-covered land out of a local total of 670 hectares are expected to be lost; an estimated 127,700 trees will be logged.
“A whole eco-system will vanish as a result, the [territory’s ecological] balance will unequivocally be disturbed,” commented environmental lawyer Nazeli Vardanian, director of the non-governmental organization Forests of Armenia. Expert assessments completed for the environment ministry give no estimates of the number of species of flora and fauna likely to be destroyed by the mining, or the effect on local humans, he charged.
Experts from the state-run commission in Yerevan that approved the assessment for the ministry declined to speak with EurasiaNet.
By contrast, a months-long independent investigation conducted by Vardanian, Union of the Greens of Armenia President Sanasarian and Social-Ecological Association President Srbuhi Harutyunian found that the mining will cause tremendous damage to the surrounding environment.
According to these findings, if the mine is developed, 59 bird species, 55 mammal species, 10 reptile species, 29 species of fish and 191 plant species will be destroyed. Twenty-one of the mammals, 11 of the fish species and nine of the plant species are registered in the International Red Book of Endangered Species published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Two of the plant species can only be found within the Teghut forests.
Architectural monuments dating from the Bronze Age to the 12th century -- and ranging from tombs and churches to traditional Armenian khachkars, or stone crosses -- will also be destroyed, specialists fear.
“The development of the Teghut mine will lay the grounds for an unprecedented process,” said Union of the Greens President Sanasaryan. While mining has destroyed before parts of forests, he said, “there hasn’t been a case until today that the whole territory allotted for mining is a natural forest.”
In response, Vardanian and his group say that there are “good” grounds for petitioning the prosecutor’s office to have the ministry’s allegedly incomplete environmental assessment thrown out.
Optimism, however, does not run high that the group will succeed. Lawyer Vardanian claimed that Environmental Protection Minister Ayvazian has called the decision to restart the copper mine “a political decision, and no matter what you do, it will still be realized.” The ministry failed to object to the 2001 tender for development of the mine, Vardanian and his associates claim.
At a February 16 press conference, Minister Ayvazian characterized the government’s position on the issue as “very tough.”
“As many as 100,000 cubic meters of wood are logged in Armenia a year legally, and 600-700,000 illegally, and I see no problem and difficulty in connection with the tree cutting in Teghut,” Ayvazyan said. Logging will occur sector by sector, he added, and ACP will “carry out forest rehabilitation works in other areas.” The Lori region in which the mine is situated is already considered by healthcare and environmental specialists to be an environmental disaster zone. According to Ministry of Health statistics, the rate of allergies and asthmatic diseases in the region is ten times higher than the national average. The rate of abnormal births in Lori is also one of the highest in Armenia. Environmentalists point at ongoing extractative activities in the region as the cause. Aside from Teghut, Lori contains an ore mine at Akhtala, a chemical plant at Vanadzor, a plant at Tumanyan that produces fire-resistant materials and a metallurgical plant at Alaverdi, also run by the Armenian Copper Program. Since 1996, the Alaverdi plant has been operated without filters, leading to regular releases of sulfur dioxide and other harmful materials into the air.
“The Lori region has lost the state of eco-balance, and the development of the Teghut mine will tremendously aggravate that situation,” commented Srbuhi Harutyunyan.
In response, ACP has pointed to the 1,400 jobs the reopened copper mine will bring to local residents. Poverty in the region runs rampant.
According to the environmentalists, though, not all villagers are excited about the possibility of employment. More than half in the neighboring villages of Teghut and Shnokh have refused to sell their lands to the mine for exploitation, Vardanian said.
“Elderly people cannot imagine how they can leave the place where they were born and live,” he commented.
Editor’s Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter
for the Armenianow.com
weekly in Yerevan.