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The Armenian government will try to address serious concerns expressed by villagers in the southeastern Syunik province about the planned launch of open-pit mining operations near their communities, Environment Minister Aram Harutiunian said on Tuesday.

Harutiunian said that he will visit early next month several local villages whose lands were transferred by the government last April to Armenia’s largest metallurgical company mining copper and molybdenum in the area.

The decision is fiercely opposed by residents of at least one of those villages, Kajaran. Its mayor, Rafik Atayan, resigned in protest earlier this month. Atayan, who is backed by Yerevan-based environmental activists, believes that open-pit mining near the mountainous village would lead to an ecological disaster.

The Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC), which is based in a nearby town also called Kajaran, has said that it is taking villagers’ concerns seriously and is ready to offer them “beneficial and acceptable solutions.” But it has yet to respond to ecologists’ claims that mining operations would contaminate local water sources and agricultural lands.

“There are concerns, the issue is being discussed, and naturally final approaches should be mutually acceptable,” Harutiunian told journalists. He refused to give his personal opinion on the controversial project, saying that he will do so only after the ongoing “discussions” are over.

Harutiunian made clear at the same time that mining work on 181 hectares of communal land handed over to the ZCMC cannot start without his ministry’s permission. “The issue hasn’t yet reached the point of our discussion,” he said. “They have not yet applied for an ecological assessment. No such process is underway.”

Base metals and ore concentrates are Armenia’s number one export item. According to official statistics, they accounted for about 60 percent of Armenian exports in January-October 2011.

The ZCMC’s majority shareholder, the German metals group Cronimet, emphasized this fact in a statement issued on December 14. Cronimet also stressed that the company employs more than 3,000 people and is currently the country’s number one corporate taxpayer.
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