Help Save Hrazdan
by Kirk Wallace, AEN Armenia Office Director
My second blog entry is a plea for help from the Diaspora. I am not prone to hyperbolic outbursts but I was thoroughly disturbed by a recent event which is described below. The issue as I, and many others, understand it, involves a potentially enormous environmental threat to Armenia. Read on and decide for yourselves if the proposed Hrazdan open pit iron ore mine indeed poses a dire threat.
I attended a rather unusual Aarhus meeting on Friday, September 23rd. The meeting was unusual because it involved a single issue, the Hrazdan mine, and was held in the capital city of Yerevan. Normally, a meeting of this type would be held in the affected city’s marzpet (mayor’s office). An Aarhus meeting, for those unfamiliar, is an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) sponsored meeting of individuals interested in ensuring transparency and pursuing justice in government decisions impacting the environment (Click on this Aarhus Convention link for a more detailed explanation.). As a signatory to this convention the Armenian government agreed to abide by its laws and stipulations and which, to this point in the case of Hrazdan, it has blatantly and arrogantly ignored. This behavior is common knowledge here in Armenia but may come as a surprise to Diasporans in the United States.
Some of the details regarding the mining operation are sketchy at this point and bear further investigation. For example, my understanding is that the mine is owned by a combination of Armenian and Chinese companies. The Chinese company, Fortune Oil purchased 35% of Bounty Resources Armenia (this information comes from a February 2011 article in Hetq and an article in ArmTown.com) which owns the iron mine in Hrazdan. The license to operate this mine was given to Nagin Ltd. which is 72% owned by Caspian Bounty Steel and 28% “owned” by Souren Ayvazyan. Here is where it gets interesting. Caspian Bounty Steel is registered off-shore, in the Virgin Islands. Registering off-shore is the choice of almost every Armenian mining company as it allows companies to maintain anonymity in their actions. Interested in an “American” source on this point? Check out the Bloomberg’s Businessweek.com’s snapshot of Caspian Bounty Steel’s “Key Executives”, “Board Members” and “Executive Committee Members”. There are none listed.
This brings us to the second highly interesting aspect. Souren Ayvazyan is the son of MP Vardan Ayvazyan. According to Hetq, Vardan Ayvazyan and another MP, Tigran Arzakantsyan are the individuals who sold the 35% of Bounty Resources to Fortune Oil, to the tune of $24 million. Government officials are forbidden, by law from engaging in these extra-governmental activities. These activities are, obviously, illegal but it is standard operating procedure in the “Republic” of Armenia. Bringing in a Chinese company to run the mine just serves to rub salt in the wound.
What is definitively known about the potential mine is as follows. It will be an open pit mine. Core samples are already being collected. It is located 1.5 kilometers from the city of Hrazdan (click on this link for a short video, in Armenian, of the mining site). The picture below shows the site as seen from Hrazdan (all pictures are courtesy of the Acopian Center at the American University of Armenia).
Residents of Hrazdan, Sevan, Tsaghkadzor and other area towns and villages are opposed to the placement of the mine in this location. And, more disturbing, it is located approximately 500 meters from the Sevan- Hrazdan and about 700 meters from the Hrazdan River itself and 500 meters from the Atarbeykan hydroelectric power station (see map). The Hrazdan River is one of Armenia’s major arteries, equivalent in relative importance to the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. It is one of the major water contributors to the Ararat Valley, Armenia’s breadbasket. In addition, the Hrazdan winds its way right through the middle of Yerevan, home to nearly half of Armenia’s population. The thought that the Hrazdan could be polluted from mining operations, tailing dumps and other unforeseen events should send a warning shiver through the spine of anyone who loves Armenia.
More disturbing than this is the threat the mine poses to the natural springs and aquifers in that area. Hrazdan receives approximately 60% of its water from the springs in the area. The same is true for Tzaghkadzor and the numerous villages and towns in the area. Yerevan also draws water from the same aquifers. Any damage to the aquifers and springs, purposely administered or inadvertently conducted, poses a disastrous threat to the long term existence of these municipalities. There were numerous scientists at the meeting that presented their findings to the Aarhus attendees and they all warned of irreversible, permanent and catastrophic damage to the aquifers and springs should something go wrong.
But, the greatest threat to the health of the people of Hrazdan and the surrounding environment has yet to be mentioned in this blog. If profound and dire threats to the region’s (and country’s) water resources wasn’t serious enough, the most catastrophic attack on the local environment will come from the air. The dust raised from the open pit mining operation will be carried by the winds to the town. This is simply unavoidable and a fact that cannot be dismissed or reasoned away. Winds are not always going to blow dust away from the town. There are times when winds will carry dust containing metallic compounds into the town, onto schools and playgrounds and into the various water channels and the Hrazdan River. The pictures show the proximity of the mine to the town and water ways. Decide for yourselves if a threat exists. The scientists and citizens at the Aarhus meeting were understandably frustrated. But, these people were not just angry and frustrated but were visibly frightened. I have been in Armenia long enough to know that Armenians are a tough and resourceful people but there was no mistaking the fear that existed in their eyes. It was unnerving.
After being introduced and explaining AEN’s mission they asked me if “America” could help in any way. Hence this blog and my initial request. What do these people want? They want what any American would want if an open pit mine was proposed 500 meters from a main water source and a few miles from a major city. They would want to know that the mining operation would be environmentally sound and operated in a clean, environmentally sound fashion. And, most importantly they would want an Environmental Impact Assessment conducted, prior to any operation being approved. These residents of the Hrazdan region are asking for public hearings and an EIA. The problem is that the government will not accede to their requests.
In fact, the government officials will inform anyone with the clout to actually receive a return phone call or email that the “environmental impact assessment” has already been conducted and the operation will be safe and as clean as possible. Let us examine that claim. My understanding of this matter is that the Environmental Impact Assessment was conducted by the Lernametalurgiai Institute, cjsc. (LMI). LMI is also known by the name of the Mining and Metallurgy Institute. LMI gave the site and participating operators a clean bill of health. So who, or what, is LMI? LMI is owned by Vallex. Vallex is one of the largest mining companies in Armenia and is the company trying to construct a copper mine in the wilderness area of Teghut. They are also the owners of the infamous copper smelting plant in Alaverdi that spews a substantial daily dose of toxic particles onto city residents from its unfiltered smoke stack. Having a Vallex owned, financed and controlled company conduct an EIA is akin to having a mob attorney also act as the jury in the case against their client. It is simply unheard of in societies whose governments have the best interest of their citizens foremost in their minds.
The operators will also “guarantee” that the mine tailings will be stored and treated in accordance with international standards. They will inform that there is “no danger” to the springs or water table. The Ararat Valley will remain unpolluted and fertile. They will opine about the economic benefits to the local communities. They will do all of this with a straight face. Americans would not blindly accept this on faith and neither do these people. They want an independently conducted EIA (There is a “rumor” that Fortune Oil has contacted SRK Consulting Limited from the UK, but this has yet to be confirmed.). They want what is standard operating procedure in the developed world. I am not “anti-mining” but I also want an independent agency, with no ties to Armenia or any mining company, to conduct this study. The stakes are too high here not to have this done.
What can you, the reader, do to help? Read through our information portal for up-to-date news on mining and other issues. Conduct your own independent research as well. Do you know someone with political or economic clout in Armenia? Ask this individual about Hrazdan and an independent impact assessment. Will this someone also help us draft legislation requiring independent EIA’s in the future with the requisite enforcement provisions? Do you know of a reputable independent agency willing to conduct the EIA? Please let us know. Do you know someone who would volunteer to translate this blog and other relevant material into Eastern Armenian? Our website is currently English only. Would you like to donate or help us organize for the purpose of receiving public hearings and an independent EIA? Do you have any suggestions for us?
Armenians are requesting your help in protecting the country. What do you say?