Dirt Poor: Ararat residents face choice between dust and the color of money

Black, the favored color of Armenians, is not so common in Ararat province.

Residents of Ararat prefer clothes of lighter colors because so much dust in the air quickly changes black, to gray.

According to Armenia’s Ministry of Ecology, dust in the city of Ararat, some 40 kilometers east of Yerevan, exceeds the allowed concentration limit by 10 times.

The city of 26,000 was an outpost of Soviet industrialism. Today it hardly matches the production of those days, but is still home to about 10 factories that operate at a fraction of their heyday. During Soviet times the city’s cement factory alone had 6,000 employees. Today, hardly that number are in all the plants combined.

Still, companies such as Ararat Cement, Ararat Gold Extraction, and Kavashen asbestos- slate production, contribute to the welfare of Ararat. And to its severe air pollution problem, filling the valley air with heavy metals, chemical elements, hazardous substances and dust.

Even though the Ararat factories work at reduced capacity, their impact on the environment has not equivalently reduced.

“There isn’t air to breathe in this city,” Ararat resident Anahit, who like others here is afraid to put her family name says. “Housewives can’t even remember how many times a day they dust the furniture, as the dust is everywhere and endless. Be it in the street, at home or else we are covered by dust and hazardous substances.”

Ararat residents complain of not being able to enjoy a cup of coffee on their balconies.

It isn’t surface dust, however, that is this city’s worst problem.

Experts at the Caucasus Regional Ecology Center (REC) say the soil around the cement plant is polluted by cement dust, and contain a high level of heavy metals (“heavy metals” are defined as those that remain in the environment for decades). Sometimes reaching a radius of 10 kilometers from its source, the dust – 2 centimeters thick in places – hinders the topsoil’s ability to absorb water. As a result, crop fertility has reduced and more than 50 hectares of vineyards and orchards have dried up.

But criticism of the plants has dried up, too, because it is not ecology that concerns residents, but the economy. And, in Ararat, the economy is dependant on those dust-producing plants.

“Ararat is impossible to imagine without the cement plant dust. When returning to the city from somewhere I notice the yellow dust right from the distance, my heart feels glorified, I feel I’m coming home,” the Mayor Hakob Tovmasyan says. “Dust has become the city’s wedding dress. We and our townsfolk love our city’s dust.”

Statistics show that 14 percent of people living in the city and its surroundings are either disabled or have chronic diseases. (ArmeniaNow applied to several state agencies for statistics comparing population and ratio of disabled, but none of the agencies replied to our requests.)

The majority of the infirmed are those who used to be or currently are employees of cement, gold, lime and asbestos-slate plants. Mainly they suffer from silicosis, black-lung disease, bronchitis, asthma, pleurisy and other diseases. Others suffer from respiratory, oncological and cardiovascular diseases.

Research has also shown that many of the afflicted do not seek medical attention for fear of losing their jobs.

Despite such information, the chief physician of the city hospital says the situation is not severe.

“Diseases in our city are not so acute,” Araik Sardaryan says “Whereas in the ‘90s, when the old plant worked, the dust grains were fine and people were harmed by that. After independence, this new plant almost doesn’t exhaust dust, and if it does, the dust is coarse-grained and the wind blows it away from Armenia outside its borders.”

Ararat experts and the city authorities see two ways to have clean air. One is to arm the plants with expensive filters, which is not very realistic, the other is to plant trees and greenery, which to some extent would be a salvation for the city.

“There have to be more green areas in the city, tree leafage is a natural filter, which cleans the air perfectly,” the mayor says.

But having a “green zone” requires irrigation and “the city has irrigation problems,” the mayor says. “Even with millions of dollars aided to Ararat, there'll still be a lot left to do.”

Although there aren't any millions yet, Ararat city is among the lucky ones to get $32,000 aid from REC soon.

“Through the city administration and NGOs the money will serve to assist the city’s ecology programs. Most significant will be the issues of greenery planting and the city’s irrigation system improvement,” the president of “Union of Greens” Ararat-based NGO Alina Lalayan says.

But if in Lalayan’s opinion the green areas will be helpful in the struggle against Ararat dust, other major problems of the city connected with Ararat Gold Extraction Plant, as the townsfolk and experts say, have neither beginning nor end.

Ararat residents are largely reluctant to bad-mouth the cement plant, since it is owned by Armenian strong-man Gagik “Dodi Gago” Tsarukyan – widely considered the most powerful civilian in the country.

They are much less reserved in criticism of the gold plant, which is owned by an Indian consortium and managed by Anil Agarval of that country.

Polluted Armenia: What will stop the process of destroying and polluting of Mother Nature? Share your thoughts in ArmeniaNow’s forums.

According to data provided by Ararat Gold Extraction Plant, about 90 tons of Hydrogen Cyanide, Sulfur anhydride, Carbon monoxide and Nitrogen oxide, Carbon dust, Ore dust, Nonorganic Dust and Chlorine vapours (fumes) are released into the atmosphere annually as part of its refining process.

“90 tons of Hydrogen Cyanide a year is a very high and dangerous indicator,” REC-Caucasus expert Dshkhuhi Sahakyan says. “Perhaps the real figures are even higher.”

Yet the plant’s ecologist Anush Gevorgyan assures that the substances do not exceed the allowed concentration limit, according to standards applied by the Ministry of Ecology.

“Hydrogen Cyanide exhaust, for example, is not much and is within the allowed limits,” Gevorgyan says.

Hydrogen Cyanide is damaging for human beings and the environment, says an epidemiologist of the Ararat city branch of Expertise Center of Ararat province, Ara Nazaryan. He avoids either giving professional definitions of the diseases Ararat residents suffer from, or speak about the air pollution, but at the same time doesn’t deny that “silicum and cyanid compositions have damaging impact on the fauna.”

Beginning this year Nazaryan expects the republic to have better means of evaluating anecdotal claims of environmental poisoning and othver ailments.

Meanwhile, it is not the atmospheric exhaustions that are of greatest concern, but production accidents and damaged pipes from which cyanide escapes into the soil.

According to Ararat administrative bodies and residents about 10 accidents have occurred at Ararat Gold Extraction Plant in recent years, from which cows, sheep and fish have been poisoned and hazardous liquid had spewed into gardens and orchards.

“I had 700 meters of vineyards with annual harvest of eight tons,” 52-years-old Julik Margaryan recalls with bitterness. “My husband worked at the cement plant, got sick and now doesn’t work. The main source of our income was our vineyard. Everybody in the local market new about our grapes and in a day’s time it was gone.”

According to province officials Julik’s vineyard “was gone” on November 28, 2004, when an accident at the gold plant occurred near the Margaryans' house. Community authorities estimated the damage at up to 8.5 million drams ($19,000).

“When I was told that water containing cyanide poured into our garden, we ran there immediately,” Margaryan says. “It smelled very bad. The water had an odd color. The plant experts were trying to clean the vineyard. I entered my vineyard, my leather shoes got corroded. At first we were told to keep silent, they'd find a solution. But nothing has been done so far. Some time later we were told that: ‘The matter has already been settled with the proper authorities’.”

The Margaryans say that plant administration typically settles such disputes by offering pay offs to keep from being sued. Those who refuse face long a frustrating days in court and only then end u p with nothing. Which is exactly what happened to the Magaryans.

Plant ecologist Gevorgyan says the gold processing firm is not liable.

“Looking into cow’s eyes or at the soil, people can’t define the consistency of cyanide,” Gevorgyan says. “The results of our laboratory expertise show that cyanide wasn’t found in the soil contents. Let the Margaryans themselves find out the reason their vineyard dried out, it’s not a concern of ours.”

To clear up the matter the Margaryans’ claim is now at a court, and the family members say after the accident they have had neither harvest nor compensation.

City administration employees and experts are waiting too, hoping that in the nearest future at least a part of the troubles facing the city will somehow be possible to solve.

“Certainly Ararat has numerous problems requiring earliest solutions,” the Union of Greens’ Lalayan says. “Besides the cement and gold plants, asbestos- slate production polluting the air is also dangerous for the environment. There are other facilities functioning here as well. So attention is a must.”

“All of us want everything to be all right,” Ararat mayor Tovmasyam says. “And the damage caused to people by the acting facilities should be compensated. Every year Ararat plants transfer large amounts of compensation money to the state budget, which should logically come back to our city and contribute to recovering the environment here, yet nothing comes back. Whereas, if everything was done reasonably, there would be much less damage.”