By Shakeh Avoyan
President Robert Kocharian has ordered a criminal inquiry into a pipeline accident that contaminated drinking water supplied to northern parts of Yerevan and led to the hospitalization of about two hundred local residents, a spokesman said on Tuesday.
The presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, told RFE/RL that the president has instructed prosecutors to identify the causes of the October 26 breakdown and, in necessary, bring criminal proceedings against those responsible for it.
The Office of Prosecutor-General said its territorial divisions in Yerevan’s disease-hit Arabkir district and the adjacent Kotayk region have already opened a criminal case. The spokesman for the law-enforcement agency, Gurgen Ambarian, said the investigators suspect a violation of sanitary and hygienic rules by the city’s state-owned water and sewerage operator. He said they have demanded formal explanations from the utility and the Armenian Health Ministry.
An RFE/RL correspondent saw a prosecutor visiting the office of the Yerevan water network later in the day. The official refused to comment as he left the building.
Kocharian’s order followed a public outcry over the continuing consequences of the water pollution that triggered a major outbreak of dysentery mainly among small children. Government and utility officials have been widely criticized for not issuing the population of the area with a health warning immediately after the breakdown, the causes of which have still not been identified. Officials suspect that a section of the old pipeline shipping water to Arabkir let in drainage or sewage waters.
A total of 187 people have been taken to the city’s main infections hospital since the accident, according to its chief doctor, Ara Asoyan. He said 54 of them have already been discharged. Asoyan added that only six new patients were hospitalized on Tuesday, suggesting that the disease is on the decline.
The head of an anti-epidemics service at the Health Ministry, Artavazd Vanian, argued that the number of dysentery victims is relatively small given that as many as 250,000 people live in the contaminated area. He said they should continue boil their water until further notice. “The water is already clean,” he said. “It’s just that we are continuing to disinfect it with large quantities of chlorine.”
A non-governmental consumers group, meanwhile, announced plans to sue the water utility for inflicting financial and moral damages on thousands of Arabkir residents. Armen Poghosian of the Union of Consumers claimed that some 40 of them have already signed a class-action lawsuit that will be filed to a local court soon.