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Pashinyan gives Amulsar mine the go-ahead despite critical environmental report

19 August 2019
A concert in solidarity with anti-mining protesters on 1 July in Jermuk. (William Hollister / OC Media)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has given the green light for the controversial Amulsar Mine project to go ahead despite a report concluding that mining company Lydian failed to properly assess the risks.

‘Not even one litre of polluted water will reach Sevan or Jermuk’, Pashinyan said in a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday night. 

‘However’, he added. ‘If new data arises, I am not restricted in changing my mind’.

The long-contested mine, located in Vayots Dzor province, had frozen construction for over a year as a result of a blockade by local residents and environmental activists who oppose the mine on environmental and economic grounds. Pashinyan’s affirmative pronouncement comes days after the publication of a long-awaited audit of the mine.

Earlier in the day, six people were detained in Yerevan as several hundred gathered outside parliament to protest the mine.

A checkpoint manned by protesters on the way to the mine (William Hollister / OC Media)

Lydian has also threatened to sue the Armenian government for $2 billion in an international arbitration court if the project did not go ahead.

‘Deficient and questionable data’

The 160-page report, which was commissioned by the government, analysed Lydian’s environmental safety impact assessment (ESIA) and environmental impact assessment (EIA) — the core documents which outlined Lydian’s approach to ensuring that the mine would have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment. 

It said that while ‘generally, the design concepts used in the Amulsar ESIA/EIA […] are reasonable and appropriate […] a number of the measures and plans, are partial, not-sufficiently protective, and/or unreliable with a high degree of uncertainty’. 

This, the report said, was ‘particularly due to deficient and questionable data, models, model simulations, design bases, and/or assessment.’

The report criticised Lydian’s approach to acid rock drainage (ARD) — the generation of acid run-off from mine waste materials, that can increase the acidity of nearby soil and water sources and significantly harm animal and plant life.

It said Lydian’s approach towards ARD ‘is misleading’ as it ‘underestimates ARD generation’. 

Another major criticism concerned Lydian’s approach to water-resources in the mine’s area of impact, noting that key data for measuring the impact of the mine had not been gathered. ‘Several potentially significant springs were not visited’, it said. 

It also added that ‘given the importance of springs to the local communities and the potential for impacts to the springs from the mine pits the springs flow characterisation is inadequate.’ 

‘Overall, the water quality modelling and solute transport model simulations are poor’, the report stated. 

‘This is enough to revoke the permits given to Lydian’

In a press release following the release of the report, Edward Sellars, Lydian’s interim CEO, said the audit ‘substantiated Lydian’s prudential approach to environmental stewardship’. 

‘Lydian’s environmental practices meet or exceed all applicable international standards, and were fully evaluated and confirmed as part of the comprehensive assessment under which Lydian received its mining permits.’ 

Responding to criticisms in the audit, the company posted on their website that they ‘remain confident that the current ARD Management Plan will provide the necessary levels of treatment for any ARD impacted water which may be generated by the project’. 

They also suggested the possibility of changing their plans to be more in line with the report’s recommendations.

Responding to the report’s claim that they had not properly assessed the impacts on local rivers, Lydian said ‘this is an inaccurate statement’. ‘The models developed for the EIA and ESIA assess and measure those potential impacts.’

Opponents of the mine remained defiant. ‘The [audit] is replete with scientific criticism of the ESIA [environmental safety impact assessment] conducted by Lydian and its consultants’, Anna Shahnazaryan, an activist with the Armenian Environmental Front, told OC Media

‘This is evidence enough to revoke all the permits given to Lydian. As activists, we are also calling on the Prosecutor’s Office to bring charges against the corporation for having woefully lied to us. Any other action than revoking the permits by the government would mean complete illegitimacy’.

Dissent within the ranks

On 15 August, during a regular session of the Armenian government, Hayk Grigoryan, the chair of the Investigative Committee — which had investigated a criminal case against government officials who were accused of withholding information about possible pollution coming from the mine — summarised his view of the environmental audit. 

He said that first, the mine did not endanger Jermuk’s hot springs. Second, he said that the risk to Lake Sevan was insubstantial. Third, he said that while mine run-off could possibly harm the Arpa, Vorotan, and Darb rivers, there were mitigation measures that Lydian could undertake to address the issue to make the risk ‘manageable’.

However, the opinion of the Armenian authorities on the mine has been far from uniform. 

‘It is hard for me to believe that I read the same report that was read by the Investigative Committee and came to the conclusion that the risks were manageable’, Lena Nazaryan, an MP from the ruling My Step coalition and a Vice-President of the Armenian Parliament wrote on Facebook. 

‘While reading, I had the feeling I always have when I study post-election reports: first you read the facts reported about all of the election violations, and then at the end, you read a summary, which concludes that although there were some violations, in general, the election was a step forward. 

‘My concerns related to the report were not dispelled, and I stick to my position, that the report is too contradictory to make a decision (based on it)’, she concluded.

‘A discussion took place during which it was stated that even if there was a 0.1% possibility of harm to Jermuk and Sevan, the mine will not be exploited’, another Vice-President of Parliament, Alen Simonyan said.

Varazdat Karapetyan, another member My Step told reports on Monday: ‘I have read the conclusion. I believe there are many problematic points in the conclusion & that permitting the operation of Amulsar in these conditions will be very problematic.’

Questionable ties

Some opponents of the mine have raised questions about ties between current Armenian officials and Lydian. Armenia’s President, Armen Sarkissian served on the board of directors of the company in 2013. At a youth forum in 2018, Sarkissian said that he had only been on the board for three months and that after he had left, he ‘had no connection with the company’. 

Erik Grigoryan, Armenia’s current Minister for the Environment has also had ties with Lydian. From August 2014 to February 2015, he worked with international consultancy firm Critical Resource on stakeholder engagement studies for Lydian International.

‘What I did is listed openly on my LinkedIn account. I have nothing to add’, he said in a statement given to openDemocracy Russia in 2018. ‘I would have declared if I were in a conflict of interests. I wouldn’t take any position like this one if it was there’.

Stuck in the middle

Immediately after the publication of the report, a 500-strong protest erupted in Jermuk with local residents calling on Pashinyan to prevent the mine from opening. 

Local residents and environmental activists promised a wave of protests and civil disobedience if the mine was allowed to open. 

Opponents of the project have long claimed that the mine would endanger the local environment and the region’s economy. 

The open-pit mine is located near the catchment basins of Arpa, Vorotan, and Darb rivers, which sustain agriculture in the Vayots Dzor Province. It is also situated above the Arpa-Vorotan tunnel, which connects the River Kechut (through the Kechut Reservoir) to Lake Sevan — Armenia’s largest source of freshwater. Opponents have claimed that toxic discharge from the mine would endanger all of these resources. 

Many residents of Jermuk, a spa-town located roughly 10 kilometres from the mine, have called into question the economic impact that the mine will have on their livelihoods. 

They were concerned that it could harm the town’s image as a tourist destination as well as pose a threat to the hot springs that feed Jermuk.

Lydian International, the UK-based company that owns the mine, has claimed that these concerns are baseless. In a statement published on their website, they wrote, that they would be ‘an example of responsible mining in Armenia, and will bring tangible, direct, and lasting economic benefits to the country’.

To that end, Lydian has promised that the mine would employ 770 people during its planned 10 years of operation and would make a contribution of $488 million to the state budget through taxes and royalties.