By Ruzanna Stepanian
An Indian company that has been developing Armenia’s gold reserves faced protests from environment protection groups on Tuesday as it unveiled plans to relocate and expand its main ore-processing plant.
Sterlite Industries Limited, which owns the Ararat Gold Recovery Company (AGRC), said it would like to move its gold smelter from the southern town of Ararat to an area close to the Zod mines, which have Armenia’s biggest deposits of gold ore. The company needs a government permission for the move and explained its rationale at a roundtable discussion attended by government officials and ecologists.
The AGRC chief executive, Vartan Vartanian, said the Indians are ready to invest $80 million in the new plant which they wants to construct in Vartenis, an impoverished town in northeastern Armenia. He said the proposed plant would drastically increase Armenia’s gold output, pay $100 million in taxes every year and create between 3,000 and 4,000 new jobs in the economically depressed area.
Vartanian claimed that the 167-kilometer distance between Zod and Ararat significantly adds to the company’s production costs. Smelting ore at the Ararat plan is not commercially viable anymore, he said.
Production levels there have steadily decline in recent years. Sterlite Industries blames that on high transportation costs.
But representatives of non-governmental organizations attending the discussion warned that a rise in gold production would mean increased emissions of potassium cyanide, a highly poisonous substance that can cause considerable environmental damage. They dismissed the AGRC’s assurances that all the emissions would be recycled, saying that the company’s environment protection record leaves much to be desired.
“Potassium cyanide is used in gold mining all over the world and is a very dangerous substance,” said Aida Iskoyan of the Center for Legal Protection of Environment. “Yes, the local people are poor and out of work. But we must not seek to improve their socioeconomic conditions at the expense of their health.”
Gagik Vartanian, the deputy minister of trade and economic development, assured the ecologists that the government’s decision on the matter will hinge on the recommendations of the Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection. “The government will not take any steps that would carry the slightest environmental risk,” he said.
Vartenis is located near the eastern shore of Armenia’s ecologically vital Lake Sevan.