Ways and Means: Funds exist for coverage of environmental health issues but few understand how to collect

According to a specialist in economy and the environment, Armenian towns such as Ararat or Alaverdi needn’t rely solely on outside help to finance protection against industrial health risks.

Conditions in both those towns are examples of the republic’s need for the jobs industry provides, but also of the potential unwanted impact of factories on the environment and residents’ health. (See “Dirt Poor” and “The Breath of Death?”)

Legislation exists that requires corporations such as a cement factory in Ararat or a smelting plant in Alaverdi to designate funds for public use in cities where enterprises are located.

Authorities in some cities say that the money never reaches them.

Specialists at the Ministry of Environmental Protection say that, often, the reason money doesn’t reach the intended target is because the very city officials who complain about not receiving it are themselves to blame, for not filing documents to make a claim.

Erik Grigoryan, Co-Chairman of the Environmental Lawyers and Economists Youth Association NGO, says his group’s studies show that neither management of factories nor city officials have sufficient understanding of the law.

“That’s the reason they are frequently forced to make additional non-substantiated expenditures, engage in various deals with different structures and hire additional workforce, while everything could be regulated by means of the existing legislation,” Grigoryan says.

According to Grigoryan and others in the field of law and environment, millions of drams are paid to the state budget by industries that produce hazardous emissions – an environmental damage tax of sorts – in compliance with a law passed in 2001.

The payments first go to the state budget as a compulsory payment made by the community to the state budget. Then, it is incumbent on the community to apply for a rebate, according to its plans for reforms in environmental protection and solution of healthcare problems.

Ashot Harutyunyan, Head of the Department for Economics of Environmental Protection and Environmental Exploitation at the Ministry of Environmental Protection explains the legislation had two aims: to enforce the concept that the one who contaminates should be held liable and, to make them contaminate less and pay less.

“And the second, it was supposed that the collected payments for environmental protection would serve to their aim in an ideal manner; that is, they would be invested in the environmental restoration works on a given area,” says Harutyunyan. “At present those environmental payments serve their aim for nearly 40 percent. But the index gradually grows parallel to the development of the country.”

Harutyunyan says the regulation of the sphere is extremely important for the development of the country.

“Of course paying attention to social issues is important especially for developing countries, but, if enviromental issues are regulated along with the social ones, it contributes to sustainable development,” he says. “Environmental protection and restoration of environment are the questions that need urgent solution. If delayed they will cost the state multiple times more.”

Grigoryan says that the law was not made use of at first, and much of the money avalable for local government use, remained in the state budget.

In 2003 1.1 billion drams ($2.5 million) went into the budget from companies, for environmental compensation and in 2005, 2.6 billion ($5.9 million).

In 2004, members of the youth environmental NGO got support from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and launched a series of training programs aimed at educating local officials on the fine points of the law.

“Before those trainings, only the Alaverdi community managed to get just 131,400 drams (about $290) once. This year the situation has drastically changed,” says Grigoryan.

“The sum we got for the first time remained unused because it was so small that could do nothing in a town like Alaverdi with its variety of environmental problems,” says the Mayor of Alaverdi Artur Nalbandyan. “But we hope this year everything will be different, because we have adopted a new approach to this problem and have come up with a more complete and substantiated program.”

The city has, for example, written a proposal asking for money to improve the diets of children in Alaverdi, some of whom suffer health problems because of copper-smelting emmisions.

“The most vulnerable among the population exposed to the activities of the Armenian Copper Programme Closed Joint Stock Company are children who need additional attention and care,” reads the Alaverdi appeal. “We plan to provide additional food products – dairy products, fruits, meat products – saturated with vitamins to six kindergartens within the implementation of the program. The implementation needs 6.8 million drams (about $15,000).”

The amount of money to be allotted is determined by special experts.

According to the program for 2006 nearly 20 million drams (about $44,450) and 10 million (about $22,225) will return to Alaverdi and Kajaran communities respectively to serve the aim.

To get money for environmental protection issues communities first submit projects to the Ministries of Environmental Protection and Healthcare to have it approved by the experts, and then to the Sanitary-Epidemic Station and the Ministry of Finance.

But the experts both in the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the economic entities claim the mechanism is not quite clear and creates additional problems.

“Besides being informed the local administration bodies need support in preparing environmental protection projects. Not everyone is capable of preparing a project, especially in a manner as to correspond to all the standards,” says Harutyunyan, of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

“While five years ago my opinion on the development of the sphere was not that optimistic, today I have a different view. The economy gradually develops, the people’s attitude towards environment and environmental protection changes. I think in this case the despair is not relevant, we just need to work.”

Anush Gevorgyan, environmental expert at the Ararat Gold Mining Plant is confident that besides the lack of specialists for writing argumented programs, the communities view the mechanism of “returning money” as a complex matter.

“I think the mechanism is not that simple and that’s the reason the system is not formed yet,” she says.