Production operations at a large copper mine in northern Armenia were halted last month because of its faulty waste disposal facilities, environment protection activists claimed on Monday.
A private mining company, Vallex Group, sent the vast majority of its 1,200 employees working at the Teghut deposit on indefinite leave on January 12, citing the need for “planned prophylactic repairs.” Vallex announced on February 2 that it will lay them off due to what it expects to be a “prolonged stoppage” of mining and ore processing at Teghut. It claimed that it needs time to commission feasibility studies on its plans to significantly boost production there.
In the months leading up to the shutdown, Armenian environmentalists repeatedly reported toxic leaks from Teghut’s waste disposal reservoir contaminating a nearby river. Vallex denied those reports.
Rafael Afrikian of the Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) said on Monday that he and other members of the Yerevan-based civic group traveled to Teghut shortly after the announcement of the mass layoffs. He said they witnessed and documented evidence of Vallex of dumping industrial waste into the Debed river through a pipe during the night hours.
Levon Galstian, who leads the non-governmental Armenian Ecological Front, claimed that the pipe was secretly laid seven months ago in breach of the Armenian government’s environmental regulations. He insisted that Vallex is not allowed to do that.
Artur Grigorian, another environmental activist, echoed the allegations, saying that his Ecological Right group has decided to sue Vallex.
Galstian also alleged that the Liechtenstein-registered company temporarily shut down the mine to avoid a bigger environmental disaster. “The company stopped operations because the tailings dump could crumble at any moment,” he told a joint news conference with the other activists.
Vallex declined to immediately comment on these claims. A spokeswoman said the company would only respond to written inquiries.
RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am)already sent such a request for comment earlier this month. Responding to it, Vallex did not clearly explain whether the Teghut shutdown had to do with its tailings dump.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Ministry for Environment Protection said it cannot comment on the claims before inspecting the site. A ministry spokesman acknowledged that no environmental inspections have been conducted at Teghut ever since operations there began in late 2014.
Lena Nazarian, an opposition parliamentarian who also spoke at the news conference, said that she was not allowed to enter the site when she travelled to Teghut recently. “The lack of transparency in their activities raises many suspicions,” she said of Vallex.
It remains unclear when Vallex plans to reopen the mine. The Teghut operator said on February 2 that it will keep a skeleton staff of around 300 employees who will guard the site and look after its industrial equipment. It also said that 200 other laid-off workers will be transferred to other mining enterprises belonging to Vallex. Those include a copper smelter in the nearby town of Alaverdi and metal mines in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Teghut generated over 42 percent of Vallex’s total operating revenue which soared by about 32 percent to $358 million last year. The mining group benefited from increased international prices of copper and other non-ferrous metals.