The Prosecutor’s Office of Syunik, in Armenia’s southern Syunik Province, have launched a criminal investigation into the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine for contaminating the River Voghji.
An accident at the combine led to two incidents of toxic mining effluent polluting the river.
The contamination was discovered on 17 October when news started circulating on social media that the river had turned a milky white. Environmental activists raised the alarm, calling for state bodies to figure out what had happened and fix the problem.
That same day, a scheduled government session was held during which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan asked his cabinet to clarify what had happened.
Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure Suren Papikyan reported that the Governor of Syunik, representatives of the Nature Protection and Mineral Resources Inspectorate, and police officers had gone to the scene of the accident to evaluate the situation.
It soon became clear that one of the pipelines of the Arstvanik tailing dump, located near the village of Nerkin Geratagh, was damaged, which had resulted in toxic wastewater spilling into and contaminating the River Voghji. This, in turn, caused the river’s colour to turn change colour.
The Artsvanik tailing dump belongs to the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine, a controversial mining company majority-owned by Germany-based CRONIMET Mining GmbH, and with alleged ties to the son-in-law of former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
During the Government Session on 17 October, Minister of Emergency Situations Feliks Tsolakyan stated that local rescue services had contacted him that morning about the situation and that no one else informed them about the accident.
He said he believed the company tried to keep the accident a secret.
The Armenian Environmental Front (AEF), a local civil initiative working towards environmental protection, stated that the accident happened at 5:00 AM and it took workers from the Combine 30–40 minutes to fix the pipeline, during which toxic waste spilled out.
Despite the fix, local activists claim that wastewater was coursing through the river until 15:00 that day, a full 10 hours after the accident.
The Combine informed the territorial subdivision of the Nature Protection and Mineral Resources Inspectorate about the accident. However, during the government session, Feliks Tsolakyan said this information was not passed up to the ministry.
According to Armenian law, mines are obliged to inform state bodies if an accident occurs.
The largest section contaminated by toxic waste was in the City of Kapan, through which the River Voghji passes for 13 kilometres.
The Nature Protection and Mineral Resource Inspectorate announced the morning the spill was discovered that the damaged pipeline had been fixed and that the inspectorate had taken water samples from the river and would be working to eliminate any effects the accident had on the river’s ecosystem.
While a preliminary investigation was taking place, local activists noticed on 27 October that the river once again had changed colour.
It soon became clear that the tunnel of the Jrakhor Hydro Power Plant, located in the city of Kapan, had also been contaminated by toxic wastewater after the 17 October accident. As a result of cleaning that tunnel, the wastewater was again emitted into the River Voghji.
In an interview with Factor.am, Boris Sargsyan, an environmental activist in Syunik, stated that similar accidents and contamination take place from time to time, however, not to this extent.
The criminal investigation into the spills will be carried out by the Syunik Regional Investigation Department and aims to uncover the conditions and reasons for the accident, as well as evaluate the damage caused to the surrounding environment.
The Zangezur Combine had been charged with ‘violating security regulations on dangerous chemical and biological materials and toxic waste which carelessly led to environmental pollution’.
In an interview with OC Media, environmental lawyer and former Head of the Nature Protection and Mineral Resources Inspectorate Artur Grigoryan, said that due to the size and importance of the Zangezur Combine, he found it difficult to believe they would be held properly accountable.
Grigoryan was dismissed from his position on 21 January by Pashinyan as the inspectorate was concluding an investigation of the Zangezur Combine.
If the Combine is found responsible, he said, it will probably be subject to nothing more than a fine.
‘Inspection bodies can legally hold companies responsible for cleaning the river and restoring it to its initial state as much as possible’, Grigoryan explained. ‘However, this requires huge expenses — tens of millions of dollars. Instead, they usually end up fining the companies, which itself is not big. Companies prefer to pay these small fines and avoid capital investments into infrastructure.’
The investigation against the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine is ongoing.