Friday, 21 September

Toxic Tailings: Can Armenia Learn from the Balkans?

In contrast to Armenia, the governments of Albania and Montenegro are keeping tabs on the tailings dams in their countries; four and twelve respectively.

What lessons can Armenia learn from new technologies being implemented in these post-Soviet countries to deal with toxic mining wastes? A delegation from Armenia went to find out.

From June 12-15, official of the Armenian government engaged in mining-related affairs and representatives of the Anahit NGO based in Alaverdi, toured Albania and Montenegro on a fact-finding mission to see how these nations deal with mine waste disposal and containment.

The visit, part of the "Environment and Security Initiative", was organized under the auspices of the OSCE's Yerevan office and financed by the UNDP. Armen Tiraturyan, National Project Officer, ENVSEC at OSCE office in Yerevan, accompanied the fact-finding group.

The Armenian delegation was met in Tirana by Christina Stuhlberger, Project Manager of the ZOI Environment Network.

During the four day trip, the delegation visited tailings dams in the Albanian towns of Reps and Rrshen, and one in the Montenegrin town of Moykovats. From there, the Armenian travelled to a closed copper mine up in the mountains. They also visited a nearby tailings dam at a zinc and lead processing plant.

Surprisingly the group members were given no protective gear to wear at these toxic sites. The project coordinator also failed to properly map out the group's route. It took the Armenian delegation six hours to travel from Moykovats to Butva even though a much better road would have cut the trip almost in half. Many in the delegation from Armenia fell ill as a result.

The officials in the Armenian group wanted to familiarize themselves with the laws on these two Balkan nations. But no answers were to come.

Ashot Giloyan, who heads the Department of Local Self-Government at the RA Ministry of Territorial Administration, also expressed his frustration at the unwillingness of Albanian officials to answer the delegation's questions.

During a discussion in the town of Budna Mr.Giloyan noted, "We received no answer while in Albania. Maybe during the day we will learn the mining procedures at work in Albania."

Mr. Tiraturyan noted during the trip that there were no plans for Albanian and Montenegro government officials to talk about their successes in the filed with the Armenians.

In Tirana, Ms. Stuhlberger noted that $12 million had been spent to neutralize the threats posed by the natural resources extraction and processing sectors in the Balkans.

"Since we have years of experience in neutralizing the dangers at tailings dams and mines, the purpose of this visit is to see what processes can be utilized in Armenia. There are many mines in Armenia that are faced with similar problems as those in Albania," she commented.

Since there aren't any operating commercial enterprises in the mine processing sector in Albania at the movement, most of the attention goes to neutralizing the threats posed by tailing dams.

The UNDP has allocated $205,155 for recultivation at the Rreshen tailings dam and $200,000 has been spent so far at Reps. Specialists expect another $60,000 needs to be spent there.

The Moykovats dam is smack dab in the center if the town. Security measures are near completion and a health center has been constructed for local residents.

The Suplja Stijena mine in Montenegro operated from 1934-1999. Last year it was reopened by the Gradir company. The company's executive director said that there is 80,000 tons of ore in the open pit mine. The company has been given the right to cut down 30 hectares of forest land to operate the zinc, lead and silver mine.

The overall expanse of the company's tailings dams is 30 hectares but the mining company uses the area in small units which are then covered over.

The director also told us that after the dams are covered with gravel polyethylene and aluminium sheeting then is placed on top. The entire section is then layered with enriched soil and trees are planted.

Each protective sheet costs $82,000.

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