Several dozen residents of the central Armenian town of Hrazdan marched on Tuesday to a nearby hill rich in iron ore to protest against the launch of open-pit mining operations there which they believe would wreak havoc on the area.
They also announced plans to file a class-action lawsuit against an obscure company that controls this and two other, larger iron deposits elsewhere in Armenia.
The company, called Bounty Resources Armenia Limited (BRAL) and partly owned by a Chinese firm, plans to extract 50 million tons of ore from the site 1.5 kilometers from Hrazdan over the next 20 years.
The project is strongly opposed by Armenian environment protection groups who say that, if implemented, it would pollute air, agricultural land and the Hrazdan river, the main supplier of irrigation water to the fertile Ararat Valley in the country’s south. Many Hrazdan residents share these concerns.
“I know for sure that the health of my children would be destroyed by this project,” one of the protesters told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) as they walked to the mining site covering a big hill.
A team of geologists hired by BRAL is currently working there to ascertain iron reserves hidden underground through test drilling.
“I understand your concerns and demands,” the team leader, Arman Avetisian, told the small crowd. “I will inform my bosses and they will respond to you.”
The protest organizers warned that they will rally a much bigger crowd if the test drilling is not discontinued by the end of next week. They also said that they are currently collecting documents to sue the company.
Karine Danielian, a prominent Armenian ecologist and former environment minister, backed the protest.
“Air above Hrazdan is already contaminated by dust and that would worsen further [after iron mining,]” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We have no positive experience in Armenia of the environment not being polluted by open-pit mining.”
Danielian argued that the area around Hrazdan is also a major source of drinking water supplied to Yerevan.
The mining project is proving highly controversial also because of lingering questions about the integrity of BRAL’s operations and ownership. The Armenian government granted the company, without a tender, the exclusive right to develop the iron mines in 2007, during or shortly after the tenure of former Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian.
The Hetq.am investigative news service reported last January that BRAL is at least partly owned by Ayvazian and his family. The ex-minister, who now chairs one of the standing committees of the Armenian parliament, did not deny that.
The Hetq report followed the announcement by the Chinese company Fortune Oil that is has paid $24 million to acquire a 35 percent share in BRAL. Fortune Oil has the option of raising the stake to 50 percent for an additional $16 million.
Ayvazian had considerable regulatory authority over the mining industry when he served as environment minister from 2001-2007. In 2006, a U.S. company mining gold in Armenia publicly accused Ayvazian of demanding a $3 million bribe from it. Both the minister and the Armenian government denied the allegations made by the Connecticut-based Global Gold Corporation.
The three BRAL-controlled deposits are estimated to contain a total of some 1.8 million tons of proven or probable iron reserves. The largest and least explored of them is located near Svarants village in the southeastern Syunik province.
According to a Fortune Oil statement issued in January, mining operations at the Hrazdan site are scheduled to start in 2014.