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Larisa Paremuzyan

Akhtala Mining Company Releases Tailings into Debed River: Director Refutes Charge

The periodic breakdowns in the pipelines that convey toxic wastes flowing from the  Akhtala Mountain Enrichment Combinat (AMEC) to the tailings dam in the Nahatak Canyon aren’t the only risks to the environment in this part of Armenia’s northern Lori Province.

There’s the issue of the tailings dam itself – it’s filled to capacity and can no longer accept any more outflows from the AMEC.

On October 16, 2017, the company applied to Armenia’s Ministry of Nature Protection for a trial permit to store its wastes at the Shamlough open pit mine.

Shamlough former mayor Lendroush Bezhanyan told Hetq that community residents approved the measure after four public meeting were held on the matter. AMEC tailings will be transported by truck from the plant to the Shamlough mine once they reach a moisture level of 8-10%.

In the meantime, however, the AMEC has been dumping its tailings directly into the Debed River for the past two weeks. Company Director Lyova Vardanyan ordered the move since the Nahatak tailings dam is full and there’s no other place to “conveniently” get rid of them.

On December 18, along the roadway to the village of Metz Ayroum, this reporter spotted one of the AMEC tailings pipes redirected to the flood canal that parallels the railway.

Misha Amirdjanyan’s house is fifteen meters from the canal. “I’m scared that my grandchildren will fall into the tailings. When we complain, AMEC management responds that we grumble because we have no one working at the company.”

Nona Beroyan says her three-year old daughter Naneh has broken out in rashes due to the tailings.

“At the age of one, Naneh was constantly coughing after the canal overflowed,” Nona says, adding that her seven-year old son Misha has coughing fits for the same reason.

Karen Azaryan, a doctor at the Akhtala out-patient clinic, says that Naneh was diagnosed with a severe respiratory infection and is being treated.

Anoush Amirdjanyan, Misha’s wife, says they also took the child to Vanadzor for treatment and were told that heavy metals were the culprit. “They referred us to see a specialist in Yerevan. We couldn’t take the child. There are four more homes along the flood canal. Those families have kids too. I’m afraid they’ll fall in,” says Anoush.

The AMEC tailings include copper, zinc, arsenic and other heavy metals.

Pediatrician Karineh Sahakyan says that heavy metals quickly lower a child’s immunity. “The younger the child, the greater the impact. Children living near a tailings dam can suffer allergies and serious respiratory ailments.

Misha Amirdjanyan says he gets nauseous just from tailings’ stench. A year ago, he contacted former Akhtala mayor Haykaz Khachikyan to see if the flow of tailings in the flood canal could be halted. He was successful.

“For the past 10-15 days, the flow has started again. The children aren’t feeling well,” says Nona.

The company also directs tailings into the Debed River via the Vochkoulis tributary.

AMEC management also drags its heels when it comes to repairing breaks in the pipes carrying the tailings. A series of pipes running along the Public School 2 in Akhtala burst on December 13 and the following day.

Tailings filled the school’s yard. The waste also covered gardens used by the school and residents.

At the spot of the spill, school guard Hovhannes Simonyan said the pipes were repaired the next day. “It was a huge accident. It was so large that the company had to truck sand in to cover the tailings,” Simonyan says.

School Director Shoushanik Habosyan says the tailings pipes alongside the school have been a source of concern for quite some time and that they should have been removed.

Habosyan says AMEC promised to bring in a water tanker and hose down the yard. Akhtala Mayor Arkady Tamazyan told Hetq that he visited the school five days after the accident to appraise the situation.

Arguing that it took him so long to inspect the accident site because of a heavy workload (Akhtala’s administrative boundaries have recently been expanded to include several smaller settlements), Tamazyan nevertheless said that the company has promised to set things right.

“I’ve been busy with administrative matters and haven’t had the time to focus on this issue. But we’ve reached a preliminary agreement with AMEC that it must address the problem.”

Hetq tried to reach AMEC Director Lyova Vardanyan for comment on the accident and on the discharge of tailings into the Debed.

“There was no accident near P.S. 2 in Akhtala,” Vardanyan declared by telephone. He also rejected the allegation about discharging tailings into the river.

“We don’t drop any tailings into the Debed. You are writing incorrect articles about us,” Vardanyan said.

When this reporter explained that he should write a rebuttal if my articles were misleading, Vardanyan replied, “I’m not a journalist to sit down and write a rebuttal.”

With that, he hung up.

As for the Ministry of Nature Protection? It continues to turn a blind eye to the violations being carried out by the AMEC.