Top executives of a copper smelter in northern Armenia warned on Thursday that it will be shut down if the government starts enforcing strict environmental regulations there.
The Soviet-built plant located in the town of Alaverdi was recently fined $800,000 for exceeding air pollution quotas set by the government in 2005. The former Armenian authorities avoided punishing the plant for that.
Visiting Alaverdi on October 1, the recently appointed head of the state Environmental Inspectorate, Artur Grigorian, accused the plant’s management of failing to implement its five-year plan to reduce toxic emissions that have long contaminated air in and around the industrial town. “The emissions have not decreased,” Grigorian said at a public discussion.
Citing financial problems, the smelter management said that it is unable to pay the fine and comply with the pollution caps. It warned that it will have to halt production operations and lay off the plant’s 500 or workers.
Hundreds of those workers led by the plant’s chief executive, Lusine Mejlumian, blocked on Wednesday a highway and a railway passing through Alaverdi to demand that the government refrain from taking the punitive measures.
Mejlumian, other senior executives of the company and some of the workers met with the deputy governor of the Lori province, Aram Khachatrian, on Thursday. They told him that the plant will stop producing copper if the government does not meet their demands within the next few days.
Khachatrian promised that senior government officials in Yerevan will discuss the matter on Tuesday.
“Dear workers, let’s wait and see what kind of an answer we get,” said Mejlumian. “You will then gather and decide your further actions.”
“If the government decides that the plant must work it will work,” said another senior executive, Nikolay Feofanov. “If not, it will not work.”
The Alaverdi plant’s parent company, the Vallex Group, is currently in serious financial trouble, having lost control over Armenia’s second largest copper and molybdenum mine after failing repay its massive debts to a Russian commercial bank.
The bank, VTB, had lent Vallex the bulk of $380 million which was invested in mining and ore-processing facilities at the Teghut deposit also located in Lori. Open-pit mining operations there began in 2014.
Vallex shut down the mine in January this year because of being unable to refurbish its waste disposal facility. Most of the 1,200 or so people working at Teghut lost their jobs as a result. VTB took over the mine in payment for the debt.
Vallex used the Alaverdi plant as collateral when it secured the loan from VTB. It could therefore lose control of the smelter as well.