Perilous Plan: Environmental groups resist gold mine construction near Lake Sevan

Conservationists in Armenia are increasingly concerned over the construction of a gold mining plant near environmentally vital Lake Sevan, which they say will greatly endanger the ecology of the country’s largest body of fresh water and cause another environmental disaster.

Members of the initiative group of the ‘SOS Sevan’ Ecological NGOs (non-governmental organizations) claim that in 2008 the GeoProMining Company started the process of constructing a gold mining plant, a depot and tailings depot of cyanides and other chemicals in the water conservation zone of Lake Sevan’s basin – in the territory of the Sodk Gold Mine.

The Ecological Alliance has the copy of the document called ‘Concept of installation of a gold mining plant in the territory of the Sodk Gold Mine taking into consideration the environmental risks’ belonging to the GeoProMining Company.

In the document the Company expresses its gratitude to the Ecologic Neo-sphere Center (belonging to the National Academy of Sciences); the Institutes of Geology; and of Hydroecology, Ichthyology and Zoology, the Environment Ministry and other departments involved in the process for their consultation.

Inga Zarafyan, President of the ‘Ecolur’ (eco-news) News Center, wonders how it happened that on March 2, the document was discussed at Local Government Minister Armen Gevorgyan’s with the participation of senior officials and ‘GeoProMining’ Company managers.

“This gives us a basis to suppose that the process of the Sodk project was transferred into a sphere of narrow political decisions. It is not excluded that the RA Law on ‘Lake Sevan’ (Article 10 of the Law prohibits mining and extraction activities in the Sevan basin) may be amended. If this ban is removed from the Law, Lake Sevan will be seriously threatened,” explains Zarafyan.

GeoProMining is involved in mining industry in Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. In Armenia Sodk Gold Mine and Ararat Copper-Molybdenum Plant (having 700 employees) belong to the Company. It pays $2.5 million to Armenia’s state budget annually.

Silva Adamyan, Coordinator of the Ecological NGOs Alliance, believes that the National Academy of Sciences should not have made such a step.

“The Academy should have refused to participate in all types of researches, since there is a law on ‘Lake Sevan.’ No other dialogue should have taken place,” she says.

Deputy Environment Minister Simon Papyan says the Ministry’s official position was stated by its head Aram Harutyunyan on April 3, on Kentron TV.

“He said that the Ministry had got no official document on the construction of a gold recovery plant in Sodk. At this stage the legislation bans the construction of a reprocessing enterprise in the territory of the Sevan basin,” says Papyan.

According to the Deputy Minister, still in 2005 they reached a negative conclusion on a similar construction project submitted by Indian Vedanta Resources Group.

“Hadn’t there been ecological risks as a result of such type of activities, the corresponding term in the Law on ‘Lake Sevan’ would not have existed. If suddenly it is decided to make amendments in the Law, then we will decide what kind of position we should have,” says Papyan.

Khachik Harutyunyan, Chairman of the NA Standing Committee on Agriculture and Environment, told ArmeniaNow that there are no impulses of amending the Law at the Parliament.

Whereas, Armen Martirosyan, a member of the parliamentary opposition Heritage faction, mentions that such rumors have already been circulated.

“I am sure that if amendments in the Law are suggested, they will be approved by all means. If there was no agreement from the authorities, nobody would carry out preliminary works,” says Martirosyan. “The agreement with the Company was signed yet during Robert Kocharyan’s presidency, and it is interesting whether Serzh Sargsyan will continue that ‘criminal’ program or not.”

Ruzanna Grigoryan, Head of the Public Relations Department of the GeoProMining Company, said the company’s management did not want to comment.

One of the main threats of the plant’s construction is piling of empty (hollow) rocks after ore preprocessing. The volumes of those rocks may reach 300 million tons. This huge amount consisting of different types of elements and dust, which have toxic composition – heavy metals, antimony, arsenic, pyrite, etc., along with atmospheric precipitations and wind would penetrate into the underground and subsoil waters and via them – to Sevan.

“The tailings depot full of cyanic combinations, heavy and toxic elements is a permanent bomb for Sevan. Annually about $40 million is needed to make the tailings depot (28 million cubic/meters) work and work safely,” says Karine Danielyan, Head of the Association ‘For Sustainable Human Development.’

According to her, generally about $105 million would enter the budget as a result of the mine exploitation. This means that after the Company leaves, the amount will be enough for 2 ½ years, after which the State will have to take care of the expenses of the tailings depot itself in order to keep it, passing that debt from generation to generation.

Environmentalists warn that the pollution of Lake Sevan will entail other heavy consequences, such as, a poisoned drinking water and irrigation system, areas unsuitable for agricultural use, as well as devastation of recreation areas and fishing zones (the whole water resource of Armenia is 35 billion cubic/meters, 33 billion cubic/meters of which belongs to Lake Sevan).

Evelina Ghukasyan, scientific secretary of the Hydroecology, Ichthyology and Zoology Institute, says: “The preliminary conclusion of the Institute was not positive. There were only preliminary data, based on the results of the research done during several months. We express our negative opinion about the construction of any concentration plant in the territory of the Sevan basin.”

Ghukasyan also mentions that they cannot submit the report of the work done by them, since it is the GeoProMining Company’s property.

“This is the first case that the results of scientific researches are discussed behind closed doors. I appeal to the public for demanding the results of the research,” she says.

The initiative group of ‘SOS Sevan’ demands that the RA legislative and executive bodies suspend the discussions over lending stabilization credit to GeoProMining (due to the application of Company President Roman Khudoli) until the Company renounces its plans to relocate the Gold Mining Plant from Ararat to the Sevan basin, and proves that its activities are transparent and in line with the Armenian legislation.

This week the session of the Commission on Issues of Lake Sevan was held in Gegharkunik Province headed by President Serzh Sargsyan. The President announced during the session that the problems connected with Sevan need concerted actions.

“We have a duty towards Sevan. We must return Sevan what we have generously been taking from it still since the Soviet Union period. We must return Sevan its health, and these are not simply nice words,” stated the President. “It is our responsibility, and we should pay back the debt also expecting that Sevan will keep on serving its nation and future generations,” he added.