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Larisa Paremuzyan

Is Alaverdi Really Turning into Hamburg?

In the beginning of September the residents of Alaverdi learned from flyers distributed around town the Armenian Copper Program (ACP), CJSC (the Alaverdi copper-smelting plant) had arranged for a new loan project with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). According to the flyers, the project aims to address some of the ecological, health, and safety problems related to the operation of the plant.

“The total project costs $13 million, $10 million of which will be allocated by the EBRD as a loan and the remaining $3 million of which will be invested by the company,” the announcement reads.

The flyer doesn't go into detail regarding which of the health-related problems that greatly affect the residents of Alaverdi the project will address. But it promises that the planned introduction of new purification equipment will ensure that the level of environmental pollution caused by inorganic dust will be reduced by 98 percent in 2007, and beginning in 2009, the emission of sulfur trioxide will be reduced by more than 60 percent compared to the present levels.

Of course, all investors have their own interests, and this is the case with these ecological promises as well. The authors of the flyer announce that in parallel with the introduction of new technologies, the production of black copper in Alaverdi will increase by 50 percent. At a September 5, 2006 session of the board of trustees of the Alaverdi Manes Fund, this issue was spontaneously addressed by Valery Mejlumyan, the founder of the fund and executive director of ACP, and it became clear that the flyers had been drafted by ACP management and posted all over Alaverdi at the insistence of the EBRD.

Mejlumyan informed the gathering that ACP had signed an agreement with EBRD to build within the course of 24 months a new production department which will reduce the gas emission by 60 percent. He explained that the production of black copper would increase 1.5 times during the first stage of reconstruction and “the second stage will be crowned with the radical reconstruction of the plant.” But it also became clear that in the coming years the volumes of black copper would grow beyond the 50 percent level.

“In the course of five to seven years our Vallex Group will produce no less than 40, 000 tons of copper concentrate. The Zangezur Copper Molybdenum plant and the Marneuli mining plant in Georgia have expressed their desire to process the concentrates they produce at the Alaverdi copper-smelting plant. About 32,000 tons of concentrate produced in Teghut will also be processed here,” Mejlumyan said.

According to Mejlumyan, the project is expected to handle that capacity during the first stage, within one or two years. “In the second stage, in the course of five years, more than 85,000 tons of copper concentrate will be smelted at the Alaverdi plant. To do this, during the first two or three years we and our German colleagues will construct a modern and ecologically safe copper smelter, like the one in the center of Hamburg, for example, which processes 370,000 tons of copper concentrate annually. And there will be no gas emissions, a completely clean production process,” Mejlumyan said, forgetting in his enthusiasm that he was planning to build a completely clean smelter not in the German city Hamburg but in Armenia, where the laws don't work and where the plant he owns has spread death in the neighborhood since the day it was reopened.

Because of the ecological damage that ACP has caused, in the last five years there have been 68 registered cases of babies born with birth defects or stillborn in Alaverdi; there have been 45 pregnant women with anemia each year; there have been many cases of miscarriage, malignant growths, and cardiovascular disease. For five years, the people who live in Alaverdi have felt the effects of pollution from the copper plant on their own skins. So they don't take it seriously when Valery Mejlumyan promises that he will build a copper smelter as clean as the one in Hamburg, since the government of our country has thus far failed to recognize the importance of protecting our gene pool, and makes few demands on investor Mejlumyan in this regard. Furthermore, the government provides Alaverdi with next to nothing out of the ecological fines that ACP pays for polluting the environment. And there is no supervision to ensure that what little they do provide goes toward restoring the health of the population.

Mejlumyan assured his trustees that the engineering and construction work would be supervised by leading international companies and organizations in addition to EBRD, but he avoided talking face-to-face with the residents of Alaverdi, preferring to distribute anonymous and address-less flyers. However the laws of Armenia require public hearings before such projects begin. Of course, the EBRD is also aware of this legal requirement, but this knowledge changes nothing.

Alaverdi Mayor Artur Nalbandyan has no opinion of his own on the matter. When asked whether he was aware of the project the mayor said no, but added that he trusted the European Bank on Reconstruction and Development.

Valery Mejlumyan noted that within some six months large-scale construction work in the Teghut mine would begin, for which the company would need $160-170 million in the first phase. “This means, he said, that within one to two years, from 1,500 to 2,000 people will be hired as construction workers and mechanics and once the mine opens, in order to process seven or eight tons of ore, no less than 1,500 people will be employed at Teghut mine and another 1,200 people will have jobs at subsidiary companies. Teghut will provide 3,000 jobs.”

How realistic are these promises? Based on the promises that Mejlumyan has made in the past, the picture is not encouraging. Three years ago, when the company was planning to increase its production of black copper, Mejlumyan went on local TV to promise Alaverdi residents that 2,000 new jobs would be created, today barely 700 people are employed at the Alaverdi copper-smelting plant – exactly the same number that worked in 2000, for example. As for Teghut, 600 hectares of forest is now being cut down there. The plant is buying one hectare of land from the villagers for 400,000 drams (less than $1,000). The villagers have no alternative than to sell, since they have no means to cultivate the land. But what will be left here after a few years when the copper has been extracted? Just a desert and landless villagers.