Hundreds of workers of a copper smelter in northern Armenia blocked a major highway on Friday in protest against its closure resulting from the government’s decision to enforce 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.
Citing financial problems, the plant’s parent company, Vallex Group, said that it is unable to pay the fine and comply with the pollution caps. It warned last week that it will have to shut down the smelter and lay off more than 600 people working there unless the government reverses the punitive measures.
Subsequent negotiations between Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian and the Vallex chairman, Valeri Mejlumian, yielded no agreement. Avinian said earlier this week that the Alaverdi plant causes serious environmental damage and should be replaced by a larger and more modern facility.
As production operations at the plant were brought to a halt on Friday many of the workers took to the streets to voice support for Vallex’s demands. They blocked a highway passing through Alaverdi.
“Can anyone [from the government] come here explain to these 630 families [of workers] what fate awaits them?” said one of the protesters. “All we want is jobs.”
Eduard Sharmazanov, an Alaverdi-born deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament representing the former ruling Republican Party, voiced support for the protesters’ demands in a written appeal to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
“I am calling on you to do everything possible and impossible so that the Alaverdi copper smelter continues to operate,” said Sharmazanov. “Or else, 650 families could choose the path of emigration.”
The government did not immediately react to the protests.
Vallex 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 the Lori province.
Vallex shut down the mine in January 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 that facility as well.