YEREVAN—Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced on Monday that “there is simply no legal basis to block construction and excavation of the Amulsar mine.” In a Facebook Live broadcast, the Prime Minister informed citizens that his administration had been poring over legal and environmental legislation pertaining to the mine following the conference call with ELARD experts. “As you know, I had asked the Minister of Nature Protection to provide me with an assessment over the mining project’s environmental impact by September 4th, which we have scrutinized with great care,” the Prime Minister said.
“The Armenian legal system provides no mechanisms allowing a minister to call for another study,” concluded the Prime Minister. He went on to explain that the only way for the Armenian government to require a fourth environmental impact assessment (EIA) from Lydian would be if the implemented mitigation measures were to fundamentally alter the site’s original plan.
“Lydian has promised us that their mine will be 100 percent clean,” Pashinyan said. “What does 100 percent mean? It means that there will be no dust in the air, no contaminants in the water of any kind, including during the construction phase.” The Prime Minister’s wording of this commitment differed somewhat from that which was actually made during his meeting with Lydian executives on Saturday. In a video released from the meeting, Lydian International’s interim President Edward Sellers assured the Prime Minister that his company “is committed and undertaking to perform to the standards required by the EIA, and that includes ensuring that the surrounding communities are not adversely affected by pollution in any form.”
Recognizing the importance of environmental preservation, the Prime Minister also warned that Armenia cannot afford to allow continued economic uncertainty either. Referencing the Moody’s Investor Service’s recent upgrade of Armenia’s credit score, Pashinyan reminded viewers that his government has a responsibility to settle the Amulsar mine controversy in accordance with the law or risk squandering the country’s economic potential.
“If we were to block the Amulsar mine site solely on the concerns of environmentalists, why then would we not also block the Zangezur and Teghut copper mines, which certainly do not abide by international environmental standards?” reasoned the Prime Minister. “However, Lydian Armenia LTD remains ultimately liable for any damage on the site,” he added.
The Prime Minister has tasked the Ministry of Nature Protection with performing an on-site examination of the mine to determine if it indeed contains any planning flaws and whether these could be rectified without the need of another survey. The Prime Minister also reiterated the right of Environment Ministry inspectors to conduct an analysis of the site at any time during its re-construction and operation.
Lydian Armenia CEO Hayk Aloyan greeted the Prime Minister’s announcement with cautious optimism. In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, the mining executive said, “We have noted both in the PM’s speech today as well as in the recording of the discussion between Lydian and the government this last Saturday, that there is a recognition on behalf of the government of the high standards that Lydian has offered, unparallelled in Armenia.” He went on to express his hope that a fair and quick solution of the Amulsar issue “will benefit the country in the long run and will certainly help raise the environmental standards in mining, as the Prime Minister reflected upon during the Saturday meeting.”
Access to the Amulsar mining site has been blocked by several dozen environmental activists since August of last year, disrupting production which was expected to start last September. These protesters have rejected the conclusions of at least three independently-conducted environmental impact assessments that the mine, operated by the anglo-Canadian conglomerate Lydian International LTD, poses no damage to the tributaries to Lake Sevan or the natural springs at the nearby Jermuk resort town.
An Armenian court has upheld an earlier judgement that these blockades constitute illegal trespassing following an unsuccessful appeal by protesters. Lydian International’s Canadian and British subsidiaries have already filed international arbitration requests against Armenia but stopped short of proceeding with litigation so far.
Aloyan revealed to the Armenian Weekly that at least 10 highly trained local employees have permanently migrated out of the country since the blockade began, while 300 locally-hired full-time employees and 1000 contractors have lost their jobs. However, the Lydian Armenia CEO felt reassured by the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of harm inflicted on Armenia’s international reputation towards investors by the blockade, adding “I believe all parties now will need to put significant efforts into restoring that trust and making Armenia attractive to foreign investments.”
Pashinyan appealed to protesters blocking the site to allow Environment Ministry inspectors to pass, contending that the new timetable gives the government time to enforce strict environmental regulations before mining commences. “People of Jermuk, I ask you to remove your blockades from the roads leading up to Amulsar,” the Prime Minister pleaded on Facebook Live.
But anti-mining activists are standing their ground; an environmentalist group known as the “Amulsar Without Mine” Initiative responded to the Prime Minister’s call in a statement: “Our positions of Amulsar will not open, but on the contrary, they will get stronger. We will not allow this mine to be exploited; Amulsar will remain a mountain. We will fight to the end; let’s unite the people’s forces and stand behind our compatriots living in Jermuk with all Armenians.”
Lawyer-turned-environmental activist Nazeli Vardanyan, who had previously caused a sensation by erroneously claiming that Armenian highways would be in danger of “exploding cyanide trucks,” also expressed her disappointment with the Prime Minister’s decision in a televised interview with Azatutyun TV. Vardanyan cast aside any concerns over breaking the $400 million contract with Lydian International without cause, arguing that the Amulsar site is not a mine yet, since it is still in the construction phase, and therefore people have a right to oppose the opening of yet a new mining operation in their community.
Curiously, the environmentalists gained the backing of an unexpected ally on Monday when billionaire-tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan declared his opposition to the new mine. Tsarukyan’s opposition Prosperous Armenia Party had been part of the government which signed the initial mining concession with Lydian back in 2012. Perplexingly, Tsarukyan’s holding company Multi Group operates at least one open-pit gold mine near the village of Mghart in Lori Province.
In any case, many of the structures on the yet-unfinished Amulsar construction site have suffered decay over the year-long blockade and may have to be torn down. Lydian specialists have conveyed to the Prime Minister that reconstruction would not resume until at least April of next year, while mining operations are not expected to commence until January 2021 at the earliest.