YEREVAN — Amid continuing criticism from environmentalists, a leading Armenian mining company has suspended production operations at a massive copper deposit in the country’s northern Lori province, citing the need to repair its waste disposal facilities.
The company, Vallex Group, confirmed on Tuesday that some of its 1,215 employees working at the Teghut deposit were sent on indefinite leave on January 12. A Vallex spokeswoman said more of them will be told on Wednesday not to report for work until further notice. She gave no numbers.
In a separate written statement to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Vallex attributed the measure to the need to conduct “planned prophylactic repairs.” It said it will specifically bring “technological parameters” of industrial waste flowing into a tailings dump near the mine into conformity with “new standards” for environment protection.
In recent months, environment protection groups have repeatedly reported toxic leaks from the dump contaminating a nearby river. They have accused Vallex of operating in utter disregard of environmental standards.
The Vallex statement dismissed those reports as “lies,” denying any problems at the waste dump. It also said that the suspension of mining and ore enrichment at Teghut will last for “two months or longer.”
Some of the workers sent home said the company management gave them no dates for the resumption of production operations. They were worried that they will not be properly compensated for the hiatus. Some also feared that the mine will be closed altogether and they will lose their jobs.
The Teghut operator sought to allay those fears, saying that it is actually planning to significantly increase copper ore extraction.
These plans met with strong resistance from some residents of two villages close to the mining site during a mandatory public discussion organized by Vallex in August. Those villagers said that higher pollution levels have already had negative effects on their fruit orchards.
One local farmer, Levon Alikhanian, has been locked in a court battle with Vallex for nearly ten years. “We are going to collect signatures and send them to the prime minister so that they revoke [the company’s mining] license,” he said. “That company got the license by fooling the government.”
Vallex has also faced strong opposition from the Yerevan-based environmentalists. They argue, among other things, that open-pit mining at Teghut will lead to the destruction of hundreds of hectares of rich forest.
The Liechtenstein-registered company pledged to plant a new and bigger forest in adjacent areas before launching mining operations there in 2014. It also promised to create 1,300 new jobs, build new schools and upgrade other infrastructure in the villages.
Vallex defended its track record in a 5-page report released last week. It said its combined operating revenue rose by about 32 percent to $358 million last year thanks to increased international prices of copper and other non-ferrous metals.