A leading Armenian mining company on Friday defended its controversial project to develop a big copper and molybdenum deposit in the northern Lori region and denounced environment protection groups campaigning against its ongoing implementation.
Valeri Mezhlumian, chairman of the Liechtenstein-registered Vallex Group, said continuing protests against the destruction of the Teghut forest are attended by mostly “uneducated” people and led by individuals keen to harm Armenia.
Mezhlumian and his deputy Gagik Arzumanian also announced that one of Russia’s largest banks, VTB, has finally agreed to finance the project with a $283 million loan. “The VTB bank has a strict approach to ecological issues and the fact that we have received VTB funding also proves that the project is being implemented in line with the most advanced standards,” Arzumanian told a joint news conference.
VTB put the loan on hold in 2010 in an apparent response to the uproar from Armenia’s leading environment protection and other civic groups. The bank made its disbursement conditional on an independent study of the environmental impact of the Teghut project.
According to Arzumanian, Environmental Resources Management, a Western company commissioned to assess that impact, has recommended the VTB funding.
The Teghut forest lies atop deposits containing an estimated 1.6 million tons of copper and about 100,000 tons of molybdenum. Their extraction would lead to the destruction of 128,000 trees. Vallex Group says it will offset the damage by planting new trees and creating more than 1,000 new jobs in the impoverished area.
Critics say, however, that the project would wreak further havoc on Armenia's green areas that have already shrunk since the 1990s. They say it would also pollute air, water and land in the picturesque region.
Last month more than 200 environmental activists and their sympathizers marched to Teghut to demand a halt to the ongoing preparations for the launch of open-pit mining operations there planned in 2014.
Mezhlumian strongly condemned the unprecedented protest. “If two dozen persons rally ten times as many people who don’t know where they go and why, how should that be called?” he said. “The two dozen people making noise simply earn a living. Among them are people who have concrete plans against Armenia.”
“Maybe 10 percent of them have some degree of [environmental] expertise. But the others are simply uneducated people,” he claimed.
Mezhlumian added that Vallex, which currently claims to employ more than 3,000 people in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, has already invested $130 million in Teghut. He estimated the total cost of the project at more than $320 million. He also said the total number of Vallex employees will reach 4,000 by 2015.