Anush Martirosian

Environment protection groups and residents of a village in the northeastern Gegharkunik province are ringing alarm bells over what they see as the illegal construction of a new ore-processing facility by a Russian company exploiting Armenia’s largest gold mines.

They say that the facility would wreak havoc on the mountainous village of Sotk and nearby Lake Sevan, which plays a vital role in the country’s entire ecosystem.

The area around Sotk has substantial gold deposits that are controlled by an Armenian subsidiary of the Russian industrial group GeoProMining. The company called GPM Gold started building an ore crusher there in February. About two dozen workers could be seen at the construction site on Tuesday.

Environmentalists accuse GPM Gold of violating an Armenian law that bans any manufacturing activity in the vicinity of Sevan that involves toxic emissions. They also say that work on the facility got underway without a mandatory authorization from the Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection.

Such an authorization can be obtained only as a result of an impact assessment conducted by ministry experts. A ministry spokesman, Artsrun Pepanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that GPM Gold never asked the ministry to gauge environmental consequences of ore-crushing operations at Sotk.

According to Nshan Stepanian, a senior official from the environment protection department of Gegharkunik’s regional administration, what the company is doing there now is therefore “unacceptable.” “It is strictly forbidden to build such a production facility at the gold mine,” he said.

A GPM Gold spokesperson responded to these claims with a short written statement saying that the company will receive all necessary licenses “in due course.”

Sotk residents, meanwhile, on Wednesday began signing a petition demanding that the Armenian government stop the construction. The village mayor, Kolik Shahsuvarian, backed their demands.

“True, the gold mine gives people jobs but it also harms people’s health and environment, and we don’t have good harvests,” one villager told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

Another local man claimed that water in the village is already contaminated with toxic waste from the mines. “We irrigate our fields with that water, and our cattle drink it,” he said.

Inga Zarafian, chairwoman of the Ecolur non-governmental organization campaigning against the ore-processing project, gave weight to that claim, saying that toxic substances have been found in a local river flowing into Sevan. She said the whole area could become a “dead zone” if the company is allowed to crush ore there.

Gagik Sukhudian, another ecologist and a member of President Serzh Sarkisian’s advisory Public Council, agreed. “The shine of gold still blinds some people,” he said.

GPM Gold, previously called the Ararat Gold Recovery Company, was purchased by GeoProMining from Indian investors in late 2007. It also owns a smaller gold mine in central Armenia as well as an ore smelter in the southern town of Ararat.

Last November, the Armenian parliament’s Audit Chamber urged the government to revoke the company’s operating licenses for what it called mismanagement and serious legal violations. GeoProMining rejected the accusations and said it will take the parliamentary body to court.

The Armenian government has yet to respond to the recommendation made by the Audit Chamber. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday that it is still looking into the chamber’s arguments.

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