The tailings dam of the Akhtala Mountain Enrichment Combinat (AMEC) is located in the aptly named "Valley of the Martyr”, nestled between the villages of Metz Ayroum and Tchotchkan in Armenia’s Lori Province.
Residents of Metz Ayroum roundly complain that they suffer from headaches, weakness and sleepiness.
“It’s a poison that stays with you in summer and winter. I’m greatly affected. This is no place to live. My wife feels run down as well,” said Samson Danielyan, a local resident and attorney. He added that all his neighbors echo his complaints.
In fact, everyone in the village told me the same story during my visit there.
Metz Ayroum Mayor Sahak Nazaryan told me that his constituents are constantly complaining to him about health problems linked to the tailing dam. Nazaryan says that during the summer, the bulk of the grievances deal with headaches and shortness of breath.
“The entire village is engulfed in a foul stench from the dam. Of course it poses a danger. There are heavy metals in the dust. In hot weather, all that poison in the ten hectare dam gets sucked up into the atmosphere,” Mayor Nazaryan said.
Staffers at the local health clinic told me that three babies with cerebral palsy were recently born. Nazaryan says that while no medical tests have been conducted to firmly the link the birth defects to the tailings dam, he’s kept the mining company’s management abreast of developments. “They ask us, ‘but how are we damaging you’?”
The pumping station for irrigation water for Metz Ayroum is located on the banks of the Debed River right near the spot where tailings wastes are dumped into the Akhtala tributary.
In the past few months, AMEC has changed the direction of its dumping or production tailings and waste water. Hetq has learnt that the company is now directly dumping them from the dam into the Debed River, via the Martyr’s Valley.
“So now we have freed ourselves of those tailings because our pumping station is located above the new dump site. Unfortunately, the villages of Ptghavan, Ardjis and others in the Noyemberyan area will suffer as a result,” Mayor Nazaryan said.
Amazingly, the possible health effects of the tailings on Metz Ayroum residents have never been investigated.
“That type of research is expensive and the village doesn’t have the resources. Metals Prince Ltd., the company who owns AMEC, has no desire to investigate the matter. So what can we do?” an exasperated Mayor Nazaryan asks.
The tailings dam isn’t even fenced off. Village livestock often fall into the dam. “The animals go there to drink the dew off the grass. They stumble in and can’t get out. If we see such an incident, we’ll try to drag the poor beast out. Otherwise, the animal suffocates in the muck,” says Deputy Mayor Valery Saradjyan. This year, four cattle fell in and one died.
The mayor’s secretary told me that rescued animals are washed down with dish detergent and sent on their way.
Saradjyan then pointed out the village’s only drinking water spring, located just twenty meters from the tailings dam. “In a year or two the dam will fill up and overrun the spring.”
In return for the tailings dam being located on village land, the 1,175 residents of Meta Ayroum receive no compensation at all. Metal Prince merely pays the community 42,000 AMD in property tax.
Mayor Nazaryan says that 80% of residents are refugees who fled Azerbaijan. “You have to understand the psychological state of these people. They left everything behind and fled to the homeland to make a new life.”
The mayor has just contacted the new director at AMEC about providing work for some residents. (Facing a debt of $1.2 million, Metal Prince handed over the running of AMEC to Aparazh Ltd. a month ago). The new manager promised jobs for residents at the tailings dam.
When I reminded Mayor Nazaryan about the health risks, he replied, “If you want to know the truth, we don’t need their tailings dam or their jobs.”