Heavy Metal River: Environmentalists Worry That a Hillside Mine in Armenia Will Bring Contamination to Southern Georgia
TEGHUT FOREST, Armenia -- On a hillside in a forested corner of Armenia, workers wearing dark-blue jackets emblazoned with the word “Tehgut” are building a huge concrete dike.
The project is part of an effort by the privately owned Armenian Copper Program to mine copper and molybdenum, a heat-resistant element used to strengthen other metals, from the site.
Below them lies the Debed River, which flows from the Javakheti Mountains of Armenia into Georgia, where those who live along it use it to water their crops.
Environmentalists fear the work being done on the hillside could make that a dangerous practice, as erosion or melting snow could carry industrial waste into river.
For two years Armenian Copper has been cutting down parts of the Teghut forest, which is situated 5 kilometers above the riverbed. Independent ecologist Knarik Hovhannisyan said the mine’s position above two rivers makes the site especially risky.
“The tailings dump is higher, the Shogh River is lower and the Debed River, lower still. Shall they put an umbrella [over the rivers]?” she said. “When it rains, melting snow contaminated with these heavy metals will flow down, taking the metals with it.
According to an environmental impact assessment of the Teghut project carried out by the mining company, about 6.9 million tons of tailings will be transferred to the dump annually, carrying a slurry of copper, silver, molybdenum, lead, arsenic, and zinc.
During a recent visit to the site by journalists and activists, Arthur Mkrtumyan, an engineer with the company, explained how it planned to avoid such waste and leakage.
He noted that the “closed cycle” site will have two dams - one to keep the waste water from draining into the soil and ground water, and another to filter water.
“We guarantee a 100 percent closed cycle, which means that every cubic meter of the water we take from the river gets filtered and is pumped back to the mine for secondary use,” Mkrtumyan said.
But Manana Kochladze, director of Green Alternative, an environmentalist group in Georgia, said the company had not properly planned for contingencies such as natural disasters.
“Without an emergency response plan your claim that there are safeguards on the tailings dump is quite questionable,” she said. “We’ve seen a number of recent disasters; we saw the disaster in Romania and we saw the disaster in Hungary.”
The director of the company, Gagik Arzumanyan, said he would start working on a plan.
To discuss the possible transboundary risks, Green Alternative and the Teghut Defense Group of Armenia hosted a conference in Yerevan in December to which they invited environment officials from the two countries.
Representatives from the two environment ministries, however, were a no-show.
“Maybe there is no transboundary impact at all,” Sona Ayvazyan, of the Teghut Defense Group, said at the conference. “Our government shamelessly repeats this without any justifications.”
Arzumanyan, meanwhile, acknowledged that his company had not looked at the risk of pollution spreading across the border. He said he would ask his staff to start work on an assessment.
A spokeswoman for the Georgian Ministry of Environment Protection and Natural Resources said it had not received any official information about the Teghut project and its potential impact.
Georgia is not part of a 1991 UN convention that requires its signatories to alert their neighbors when a project might have an environmental impact across borders.
“If we were part of the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact, the Armenian government would have been obliged to send us the information without us even requesting it,” says Nikoloz Chakhnakia, spokesman for the convention in Georgia and former director of licenses and permits for the Environment Ministry.
Hovhannes Nikogosyan, head of the environmental department at the independent Institute of Mountainous Methallurgy, spoke at the conference about the general impact on neighboring countries:
“If we have an emergency situation or any leak, of course the pollution will go to Georgia.” he said. “Imagine that I live on the fifth floor and you live on the fourth. If I let the water go, it will leak on you. If you don’t like it, let’s trade places: you come here and we’ll go there, then you can pollute us. This is a joke, of course.”