The operation of the Amulsar gold mine in Armenia may pose a big threat to the Caspian Sea basin, soil quality in the Caucasus region and, in general, to the ecology of the Caspian states.
The Amulsar mine is located in southeastern Armenia, 13 kilometers from Jermuk resort town and the Kechut reservoir, connected with Lake Sevan (Goycha), in the interfluve of Arpa river (Azerbaijani name – Arpachay) and Vorotan river (Azerbaijani name – Bazarchay). Both rivers flow through Azerbaijan and merge with Araz River.
Environmentalists fear that the operation of the Amulsar mine, during which sodium cyanide will be used, may lead to the oxidation and pollution of water in rivers by cyanides. The contaminated waters will become unsuitable for drinking, irrigation and may cause irreparable harm to the mineral springs of Jermuk and the ecosystem of Sevan.
For ten years, the exploration work at the mine was conducted by UK’s Lydian Armenia company and it began to prepare the mine for operation in 2016. To date, about $400 million has been invested in the development of the mine. The Armenian authorities call the Amulsar project the biggest international investment program in the history of the country.
While realizing that the country’s economy is in ruins and people live in poverty, the Armenian government decided to openly violate the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. In particular,according to the country’s document, the states sharing transboundary waters are obliged to protect them and join efforts to ensure sustainable and integrated water resources management.
Nevertheless, the Armenian leadership had to revise the project, despite Lydian Armenia has been operating on the Amulsar mine since 2006. The reason is that Yerevan was impelled by the expert warnings about the negative environmental impact of the mine and growing discontent in the country.
The environmentalists were irritated after former Armenian government approved the project for the operation of the Amulsar mine, without conducting a preliminary analysis of environmental risks, thus only trusting Lydian Armenia’s estimates. The environmental safety guarantees provided by the experts of the UK’s company are considered by the ecologists to be unreliable and unfounded.
Last summer, environment activists blocked entry into the mine. The new Armenian government was forced to freeze the implementation of the project and announce its intention to conduct a new examination assessing the degree of risk of developing the Amulsar mine.
In August 2019, as part of the criminal proceedings on the fact of deliberate concealment of information on environmental pollution associated with the operation of the Amulsar gold mine, the Armenian investigative committee published a report on the mine’s exploration, conducted by ELARD consulting company. Proceeding from the document, the production at the Amulsar gold mine does not contain unmanageable environmental risks.
Consequently, there are risks, but upon a well-known reason, ELARD has characterized them as “manageable”. However, according to some reports, ELARD revealed big environmental risks for the rivers in this area and proposed a different interpretation of its report during a video conference with Armenian officials and lawmakers, which was moderated by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on August 29.
ELARD said that they could not definitively assess the potential impact of the Amulsar project on the environment as Lydian provided erroneous and incomplete data to the Armenian authorities.
Armenian ecologists said that the latest statements made by experts confirm their long-standing allegations that the Amulsar project is too dangerous for the country’s ecosystem.
One of these activists, Anna Shahnazaryan, said that these statements mean that some Armenian officials took the side of Lydian, and gave inaccurate information on this issue.
“Presently, the state bodies must conduct an investigation to find out whether the Investigative Committee or other people worked poor or whether Lydian continued to mislead the government,” Shakhnazaryan told Radio Liberty.
As a result, the Armenian government was between the floors: on one hand, environmentalists and indignant citizens, and on the other hand, big investments and international pressure.
Over the past two years, the territory of the mine is being blocked for access by the activists. To put pressure on the Armenian leadership, Lydian threatened the Armenian government with international arbitration, where Armenia could end up with a $2-billion fine.
Caught under international pressure, Pashinyan had to allow the continuation of work at the mine, but he promised that in case of violations in the work of investors, the government reserves the right to completely close the project.
Meanwhile, a report recently prepared by the EU delegation on the possible operation of the Amulsar gold mine in Jermuk was published on the OpenDemocracy website. In accordance with the EU’s report, the UK and the US exert pressure on Armenia in connection with the controversial gold mining program.
Those who are against the mine development say that they have big concerns about the potential environmental damage. The investors are expected to keep this issue on the agenda and put pressure on Yerevan for the project to be implemented at any cost.
However, while Armenian activists and environmentalists are protesting against development and operation of the mine, fearing river pollution and the destruction of rare species of flora and fauna in their country, an environmental disaster may have a devastating effect on the territories and water resources far beyond the borders of Armenia.
The Amulsar gold mine is capable of poisoning the entire basin of the Caspian Sea, polluting the rivers flowing through Azerbaijan. In accordance with the joint research by the Armenian Environmental Front and international experts, hazardous chemical waste from the mine will fall into Arpa and Vorotan rivers (Arpachay and Bazarchay in Azerbaijan).
In accordance with the joint research reports, as a result of acid mine drainage, the concentration of metals and sulfates in soil and water will greatly increase.
In its research, Lydian focused on the acid formation potential but did not publicly talk about the possibility of polluting rivers and groundwaters by waste from the mine.
The results of the research of the Armenian Environmental Front and international experts show that ore waste in Amulsar will contain high concentration of antimony, arsenic, copper and zinc, greatly exceeding the acceptable water quality standards.
Antimony and arsenic may easily penetrate the food chain and pose a danger to humans even at low concentrations. Copper and zinc are toxic for fish and other organisms living in water, and for humans.
The Arpachay River in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the Bazarchay in the occupied Azerbaijani territories merge with the waters of the Araz River, which in turn flows into the Caspian Sea.
Thus, this may cause irreparable damage to the environment and ecology of not only Azerbaijan, but also Iran and other Caspian countries. Although the problem is not global, it is at least regional.
Amulsar is a sulfide deposit with huge volumes of sulfur. In case of an open deposit, all surface water and sediment will inevitably become polluted and seep into the rock mass. As a result, sulfur and other chemicals, including zinc, antimony and cyanides penetrate into the rivers and groundwater.
This is the uncontrollable risk. Unfortunately, nature does not have a mechanism for self-cleaning from many chemicals, including heavy metals. The effects of poisoned food products show up in the form of oncological diseases after dozens of years, harm the reproductive and hereditary functions.
However, poor Armenia expects to receive the multimillion revenues and the assertive Western countries are greatly interested in this project. In such a situation, it is obvious that implementation of the Amulsar project cannot be avoided.
At the same time, the international community, which is extremely vigilant in much less fateful issues, reacts rather sluggishly, while the vulnerable ecosystem of the entire Caspian Sea basin, the health and lives of the population of the five Caspian states are under threat.