ArmeniaNow – 04/28/2006

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Armenia can hardly afford to waste or abuse the precious few natural resources
offered in the tiny, landlocked republic.

Recent contentious debates on Armenia’s barter deals with Russia over natural
gas is a reminder of just how dependent the nation is on outside help to keep
its homes lit and heated.

It behoves government authorities, lawmakers and citizens themselves to heed
cautious words of environmentalists. Conversely, advocates for everything
green must indulge the crucial condition of a society in which a choice for
ecology over economy is as real as clean air versus income.

As this week Armenia and its neighbours remember the region’s worst ecological
disaster 20 years ago, Chernobyl, we take a look at some of the major points
where clean living is threatened in Armenia and where health itself must be
weighed against welfare.

In these nine articles we report on one factory that is filling a community’s
air with toxins, and another that is clogging plants and people with harmful
dust. We look inside reasons why Armenia’s forests are dwindling, and we
listen to the debate over whether Armenia’s nuclear power plant is safe. We
visit with victims of that Chernobyl disaster. And we meet men disabled by an
accident at Metsamor, but who still work there because of the choice cited
above. We look at some minor steps toward alternative energy and at the major
need for more.

Finally, we report on the gap between legislation to provide compensation for
ecologically-impacted communities and officials’ misunderstanding of the
collection process.


ArmeniaNow reporters Marianna Grigoryan, Arpi Harutyunyan, Gayane Lazarian
and photographer Karen Mirzoyan spent two months traveling around Armenia to
investigate the state of the nation’s environmental health.

In one of the most extensive reporting projects of its type in Armenia, the
reporters interviewed dozens of health and environmental specialists,
scientists, national and local government officials and citizens on the
street. They collected studies and statistics, from the government and outside

Still, our journalists – like all in Armenia – faced roadblocks. Governmental
agencies either declined to provide information or delayed releasing material
that is public record. Telephone calls to European Union officials in Armenia
dealing with the Metsamor nuclear plant were not returned. And some citizens –
fearful of losing their jobs – declined to discuss conditions at industrial

Despite the roadblocks, every effort was made to provide informative, balanced

This series was directed and edited by John Hughes, ArmeniaNow editor, and
Timothy Spence, a Knight International Press Fellow working in Armenia.
Graphics and design were supervised by web administrator Babken Juharyan.

To report environmental concern to ArmeniaNow or to send feedback, write to
[email protected]


By Arpi Harutyunyan
and Marianna Grigoryan
ArmeniaNow reporters

When doctors in the Spandaryan district of Alaverdi are late for work at the
local hospital, their boss points out the window to the tall chimney of a
copper-smelting plant that belches pungent smoke.

`The reason for being late is neither transportation, nor habit,’ says Dr.
Hamlet Shahinyan. `Instead of coming to work, they stop their children’s
nosebleeds. Everybody knows what the reason is.’

For the 22,000 residents of Alaverdi, the operation that takes mined copper
ore and turns it into metal is both the economic lifeblood of the town and a
source of growing concern about its effects on health and the environment.

For some, smoke from that landmark chimney signals security. For others it is
an ominous cloud of an unhealthy and potentially damaged future.

Residents interviewed by ArmeniaNow complained of deteriorating environmental
conditions and health problems – including the nosebleeds Dr. Shahinyan

Health and environmental officials also express concerns about the plant,
which was built in 1963 and has operated ever since – except for an 8-year
period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They say a rise in the number
of health problems and birth defects among residents, and high levels of
sulfur dioxide and other toxins should signal alarm.

`The appearance of the numerous problems in Alaverdi is mostly connected with
the uncontrollable emissions of the plant and the contaminated environment as
its consequence,’ says Alaverdi Mayor Arthur Nalbandyan. `Everybody knows
about the influence and the consequences of the smoke.’

There are regulations in place that should make any concern about health less
costly, if not less certain.

Under Armenian law, companies that exploit natural resources must pay annual
environmental impact payments to the government. A law adopted in 2001
requires that a portion of those payments be returned to the originating
communities to mitigate the effects of mining or hazardous materials. But
local officials – including the mayor of Alaverdi – say that money is rarely
returned by the central government, undermining their efforts to clean up
ecological hazards. The government, meanwhile, says documents must be filed
making a claim on the allotted money and that some communities – including
Alaverdi – have not filed the proper documents.

Representatives of the company that run the operation, the Armenian Copper
Programme (ACP) say that over the next two years they plan to install filters
on the 100-meter smokestack to replace those removed when the plant was shut
down nearly 20 years ago. While ACP did not say how much it planned to spend,
informed outsiders speculate it could cost as much as $50 million, and those
interested observers are skeptical whether the company will invest that much
for environmental protection.

While announcing intentions to improve emissions control, ACP denies a
connection between their plant and a reported increase in health defects and
other problems, dismissing complaints as criticism fostered by high
unemployment and the fact that the plant employs only a fraction of the
workforce it had in Soviet times.

Whatever the speculation, some matters are well accounted:

Smoke billows from the ACP stack. Haze hangs in the air over the town. Local
farmers and fruit growers blame runoff from mines for polluting Debed River, a
source for irrigation.

Some residents talk freely of problems they say are a direct result of the
smelting process. Others avoid the topic in a community where the copper-
smelting operation is the main private-sector employer.


Health workers in town say pollutants and emissions from the mine and smelter
almost certainly are a factor in the patients they treat, including
respiratory problems and women with pregnancy complications.

`Of course the evolution of deficiencies is greatly connected to the
contaminated environment since almost all the (emissions) are capable of
causing deviations and deficiencies in organisms,’ says Gayane Avagyan, a
specialist in the Ministry of Healthcare’s department for women and children.

Dr. Amalia Azatyan, the chief physician at the town’s maternity hospital, says
there have been an unusually high number of cases of hydrocephaly, or
excessive amounts of water in the brain; anencephaly, the absence of part of
the brain and skull; and `two-headed’ fetus, a sack resembling a head filled
with water.

One young Alaverdi resident says she was forced to abort her 7-month pregnancy
in October 2005 after doctors determined that her baby would be born without
part of its brain. She blames the polluted air in the town, where high cliffs
on two sides hold the air like a bowl.

`I felt very bad during the pregnancy. I was choking, I couldn’t breathe,
there was no air,’ says Siramarg Evoyan, 23, whose first child was born
without complications in 2000.

While doctors did not directly link Evoyan’s complications to the plant
emissions, statistics from the Ministry of Healthcare report a rise in birth
defects and complications since 2000.

Dr. Azatyan also reports abnormal numbers of children born with cleft palate,
and cases of contorted or missing appendages. She described the situation
as `horrifying’.

`I don’t have an answer to the question of what is the reason for those kinds
of deficiencies, because there is no complete analysis,’ Dr. Azatyan
says. `However I am confident the contaminated environment has its role in
all these. It affects people, and pregnant women are more sensitive, and
fetuses even more.’

Until last May, the Alaverdi Maternity Hospital lacked the equipment to do
specialized testing of fetuses. Now physicians are better able to detect
defects in the unborn.

`Problems of pregnant women and anomaly births have become so frequent that
women who visit the ultrasound testing for the first time, most of all are
interested whether their child is normal or if it has deformities,’ says Roza
Machkalyan, who heads the hospital’s consultation department.

In Alaverdi, government statistics show a troublesome rise cancer and in
prenatal and pediatric disease:

 The number of cases of malignant neoplasm – a tumor or tissue
containing abnormal growth – grew from 360 in 2002, to 392 in 2003 and 411 in

 In 2001 697 children under 14 were diagnosed with respiratory
illnesses, while by 2003 the number had doubled, to 1,389.

Karlen Evoyan says nature is feeling the impact, too.

`My apple garden that used to give me 4 tons of crops every year went totally
dry over several years,’ he says. `There are many bee-keepers here, but the
bees have died out over the years.’


Armenia’s home-grown environmental movement in the late 1980s fought to close
the Alaverdi copper-smelting plant, then a state-owned operation that was one
of the most prolific in the Soviet Union.

Private investors bought the plant 10 years ago and resumed production,
although the workforce of 500 is one-tenth the 5,000 employed during the
Soviet years.

Today, representatives of the company dismiss criticism from the townspeople
and health workers.

A representative of the company, Andranik Ghambaryan told ArmeniaNow
that `everything is under control’. He denies that pollutants from the plant
are related to birth defects and other problems.

Plant management assessment isn’t consistent, however, with Ministry of Health
Care statistics showing that:

In 1992, when the plant was not working, no birth defects were registered in
Alaverdi. By 2001 – five years after the plant re-started – there were 28
cases; and by 2004 the figure grew to nearly four times that, at 107.

`This information is false,’ Ghambaryan says. `No one can deny the existence
of emissions, but they don’t cause damage. People spread such information
because the plant at present has 10 times less workers than it used to have
and the people are unemployed.’

Doctor Azatyan, knows unemployment is a problem for Alaverdi, but her
experience and the problems evolving each month surprise even the experienced
doctor. According to her each time she goes to the Ministry of Health Care for
a report, specialists are taken by surprise at the long list of deformities
and health problems.

Over the past year `the situation is horrifying,’ she says. `We have had all
those cases with vividly exposed deformities we have never had before.’

The Chief Doctor says the reason the maternity got ultrasound equipment, is
because the Ministry of Health Care recognized a problem in Alaverdi, and put
the machines in place.


For at least two generations, the city and the smelting operation have been

After opening 43 years ago, the plant would become one of the largest of its
type in the Soviet Union, producing up to 55,000 tons of refined copper. At
its peak, the operation employed nearly one-fourth of the town’s residents.

But some 20 years ago, the place for jobs also became a source of health
concern for Alaverdi residents.

`In the late `80s the growth of the volume of production was accompanied by a
drastic growth in the emissions of the plant,’ says Rafik Ghazinyan, chairman
of the Debed environmental organization and a leading environmental campaigner.

One of the byproducts of copper smelter is sulfur dioxide, a pungent, toxic
gas that is an ingredient in acid rain. Acid rain – which results from the
mixture of precipitation with high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and other
toxins – can be carried long distances and damage or destroy ecosystems and
pollute waterways.

Ghazinyan recalls that water-mixed emissions were pouring into the Debed
River, water that is used for irrigation.

`The Debed turned into a dead river in those years, the fauna in it vanished,’
he says.

Armenia’s burgeoning environmental movement – sparked by concerns over safety
of the Metsamor nuclear power plant – and the decline in Soviet influence, led
authorities to close the state-owned mine and smelter in 1988.

Parts from the mining operation were dismantled and sold off, including the
expensive filters that reduced caustic emissions.

The closing of the plant spared residents some of the environmental concerns
that helped instigate the closure, but at the cost of 5,000 jobs.

The copper mine and smelter resumed operations in 1997 under the ownership of
Russian-Armenian investor Valery Mezhlumyan, chairman of the Armenian Cooper
Programme. The plant began a pilot program of production straight away, but it
was not until 2000 – 12 years after its shutdown – that it resumed major
operations. According to the company’s Web site () ACP wants to
expand its exploration, processing and marketing of minerals and metals in

Townspeople say air quality and the environment improved when the copper mine
and smelter closed, but problems have returned when they reopened.

`Our town is located in the gorge and the plant emissions pour into the
atmosphere and stay over the town,’ says Ghazinyan, who led the protest
against the copper operation in 1988. (Owners and management of the plant do
not live in Alaverdi.)

Environmentalists say the white, 100-meter chimney of the copper smelter emits
sulfur dioxide 24 hours per day. People close their doors and windows as a
defense against the smog and smell.

`People are naïve enough to think they are safe from the white clouds of
emissions constantly going out in their neighborhood by closing the doors and
the windows. But nothing can help,’ says Hovik Avetisyan, an Alaverdi

Environmentalists, health workers and town authorities say the reopening of
the plant without filtering equipment has hurt the town.

`Problems began after the reopening of the plant,’ says Larisa Paremuzyan,
mayor of Alaverdi from 1989 to 1991 and now chairwoman of the Women’s Support
Center. `Although from the very beginning the consequences of the production
without filters were predictable, the real situation exceeded our

While denying accusations that the plant is a health risk, officials there say
plans are in place that should improve emissions control.
`By the end of 2008, filters will be set for operation in two stages to solve
the ecological problems,’ says Taguhi Karapetyan, who heads the company’s
information department.

There are no current plans to improve air or water quality in Alaverdi, even
though the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s own studies indicate that
emissions of sulfur dioxide, dust and nitrogen dioxide – a gas that can cause
breathing difficulties – exceed what are considered healthful limits. Levels
of sulfur dioxide were more than 10 times the legal limits – the worst of the
cities monitored. The MEP says it is not within its jurisdiction to implement
improvements, it can only set and control policy.

If Armenia’s novice environmentalists saw it as a victory when the plant was
closed in 1988, then veterans of the movement surely have no cause to
celebrate today. When the plant was closed due to health concerns, it exceeded
permissible emissions of sulphur-based pollutants by 7.2 times. But today the
plant pumps out 10.6 times the allowed level, and no one is stopping it.
Health workers say such pollutants can cause inflammation of the mucous
membrane, respiratory problems, weakened mental aptitude and immune system.
Emil Babayan, who heads the industrial toxicology lab at the Institute for
General Hygiene and Vocational Diseases in Yerevan, says the copper production
in Alaverdi involves a number of chemical elements – including lead, cadmium,
iron, molybdenum and arsenic.
`The combination of arsenic and sulphur dioxide, along with cadmium, is
considered to be cancer-generating material. The latter also affects the
kidneys. And lead is classified among extremely toxic materials that can
affect the human reproduction function, causing disfigurement and anomalies,’
says Babayan.


Shortly after the Alaverdi plant reopened, doctors urged a non-government
environmental organization to undertake measures to reduce emissions at the

`We appealed to the UN Development Program to study the causal relationship
between illnesses and emitted gases,’ recalls Aida Iskoyan, chairwoman of the
Legal Protection of the Environment organization. `But the project was
suspended because the people were afraid the study would cause closure of the
plant. People wouldn’t agree to that as there was a social issue. And no one
spoke of installing filtering equipment: the plant said it had no means.’

Now that the plant officials say they intend to install the filtering system –
with new and used equipment from Slovakia – residents and even some town
officials are skeptical. Still, jobs are needed and a portion of the populace
that has been sustained by copper smelting would like to see it operate

Mayor Nalbandyan says the town faces a difficult choice – protecting its health
or keeping an important employer and a fixture in the town’s history.

`Nobody wants the plant to be closed down, nobody imagines Alaverdi without
the plant,’ he says.


By Marianna Grigoryan

Black, the favored color of Armenians, is not so common in Ararat province.

Residents of Ararat prefer clothes of lighter colors because so much dust in
the air quickly changes black, to gray.

According to Armenia’s Ministry of Ecology, dust in the city of Ararat, some
40 kilometers east of Yerevan, exceeds the allowed concentration limit by 10

The city of 26,000 was an outpost of Soviet industrialism. Today it hardly
matches the production of those days, but is still home to about 10 factories
that operate at a fraction of their heyday. During Soviet times the city’s
cement factory alone had 6,000 employees. Today, hardly that number are in all
the plants combined.

Still, companies such as Ararat Cement, Ararat Gold Extraction, and Kavashen
asbestos- slate production, contribute to the welfare of Ararat. And to its
severe air pollution problem, filling the valley air with heavy metals,
chemical elements, hazardous substances and dust.

Even though the Ararat factories work at reduced capacity, their impact on
the environment has not equivalently reduced.

`There isn’t air to breathe in this city,’ Ararat resident Anahit, who like
others here is afraid to put her family name says. `Housewives can’t even
remember how many times a day they dust the furniture, as the dust is
everywhere and endless. Be it in the street, at home or else we are covered by
dust and hazardous substances.’

Ararat residents complain of not being able to enjoy a cup of coffee on their

It isn’t surface dust, however, that is this city’s worst problem.

Experts at the Caucasus Regional Ecology Center (REC) say the soil around the
cement plant is polluted by cement dust, and contain a high level of heavy
metals (`heavy metals’ are defined as those that remain in the environment for
decades). Sometimes reaching a radius of 10 kilometers from its source, the
dust – 2 centimeters thick in places – hinders the topsoil’s ability to absorb
water. As a result, crop fertility has reduced and more than 50 hectares of
vineyards and orchards have dried up.

But criticism of the plants has dried up, too, because it is not ecology that
concerns residents, but the economy. And, in Ararat, the economy is dependant
on those dust-producing plants.

`Ararat is impossible to imagine without the cement plant dust. When returning
to the city from somewhere I notice the yellow dust right from the distance,
my heart feels glorified, I feel I’m coming home,’ the Mayor Hakob Tovmasyan
says. `Dust has become the city’s wedding dress. We and our townsfolk love our
city’s dust.’

Statistics show that 14 percent of people living in the city and its
surroundings are either disabled or have chronic diseases. (ArmeniaNow applied
to several state agencies for statistics comparing population and ratio of
disabled, but none of the agencies replied to our requests.)

The majority of the infirmed are those who used to be or currently are
employees of cement, gold, lime and asbestos-slate plants. Mainly they suffer
from silicosis, black-lung disease, bronchitis, asthma, pleurisy and other
diseases. Others suffer from respiratory, oncological and cardiovascular

Research has also shown that many of the afflicted do not seek medical
attention for fear of losing their jobs.

Despite such information, the chief physician of the city hospital says the
situation is not severe.

`Diseases in our city are not so acute,’ Araik Sardaryan says `Whereas in
the `90s, when the old plant worked, the dust grains were fine and people were
harmed by that. After independence, this new plant almost doesn’t exhaust
dust, and if it does, the dust is coarse-grained and the wind blows it away
from Armenia outside its borders.’

Ararat experts and the city authorities see two ways to have clean air. One is
to arm the plants with expensive filters, which is not very realistic, the
other is to plant trees and greenery, which to some extent would be a
salvation for the city.

`There have to be more green areas in the city, tree leafage is a natural
filter, which cleans the air perfectly,’ the mayor says.

But having a `green zone’ requires irrigation and `the city has irrigation
problems,’ the mayor says. `Even with millions of dollars aided to Ararat,
there’ll still be a lot left to do.’

Although there aren’t any millions yet, Ararat city is among the lucky ones to
get $32,000 aid from REC soon.

`Through the city administration and NGOs the money will serve to assist the
city’s ecology programs. Most significant will be the issues of greenery
planting and the city’s irrigation system improvement,’ the president
of `Union of Greens’ Ararat-based NGO Alina Lalayan says.

But if in Lalayan’s opinion the green areas will be helpful in the struggle
against Ararat dust, other major problems of the city connected with Ararat
Gold Extraction Plant, as the townsfolk and experts say, have neither
beginning nor end.

Ararat residents are largely reluctant to bad-mouth the cement plant, since it
is owned by Armenian strong-man Gagik `Dodi Gago’ Tsarukyan – widely
considered the most powerful civilian in the country.

They are much less reserved in criticism of the gold plant, which is owned by
an Indian consortium and managed by Anil Agarval of that country.

According to data provided by Ararat Gold Extraction Plant, about 90 tons of
Hydrogen Cyanide, Sulfur anhydride, Carbon monoxide and Nitrogen oxide, Carbon
dust, Ore dust, Nonorganic Dust and Chlorine vapours (fumes) are released into
the atmosphere annually as part of its refining process.

`90 tons of Hydrogen Cyanide a year is a very high and dangerous indicator,’
REC-Caucasus expert Dshkhuhi Sahakyan says. `Perhaps the real figures are even

Yet the plant’s ecologist Anush Gevorgyan assures that the substances do not
exceed the allowed concentration limit, according to standards applied by the
Ministry of Ecology.

`Hydrogen Cyanide exhaust, for example, is not much and is within the allowed
limits,’ Gevorgyan says.

Hydrogen Cyanide is damaging for human beings and the environment, says an
epidemiologist of the Ararat city branch of Expertise Center of Ararat
province, Ara Nazaryan. He avoids either giving professional definitions of
the diseases Ararat residents suffer from, or speak about the air pollution,
but at the same time doesn’t deny that `silicum and cyanid compositions have
damaging impact on the fauna.’

Beginning this year Nazaryan expects the republic to have better means of
evaluating anecdotal claims of environmental poisoning and other ailments.

Meanwhile, it is not the atmospheric exhaustions that are of greatest concern,
but production accidents and damaged pipes from which cyanide escapes into the

According to Ararat administrative bodies and residents about 10 accidents
have occurred at Ararat Gold Extraction Plant in recent years, from which
cows, sheep and fish have been poisoned and hazardous liquid had spewed into
gardens and orchards.

`I had 700 meters of vineyards with annual harvest of eight tons,’ 52-years-
old Julik Margaryan recalls with bitterness. `My husband worked at the cement
plant, got sick and now doesn’t work. The main source of our income was our
vineyard. Everybody in the local market new about our grapes and in a day’s
time it was gone.’

According to province officials Julik’s vineyard `was gone’ on November 28,
2004, when an accident at the gold plant occurred near the Margaryans’ house.
Community authorities estimated the damage at up to 8.5 million drams

`When I was told that water containing cyanide poured into our garden, we ran
there immediately,’ Margaryan says. `It smelled very bad. The water had an odd
color. The plant experts were trying to clean the vineyard. I entered my
vineyard, my leather shoes got corroded. At first we were told to keep silent,
they’d find a solution. But nothing has been done so far. Some time later we
were told that: `The matter has already been settled with the proper

The Margaryans say that plant administration typically settles such disputes
by offering pay offs to keep from being sued. Those who refuse face long a
frustrating days in court and only then end u p with nothing. Which is exactly
what happened to the Margaryans.

Plant ecologist Gevorgyan says the gold processing firm is not liable.

`Looking into cow’s eyes or at the soil, people can’t define the consistency
of cyanide,’ Gevorgyan says. `The results of our laboratory expertise show
that cyanide wasn’t found in the soil contents. Let the Margaryans themselves
find out the reason their vineyard dried out, it’s not a concern of ours.’

To clear up the matter the Margaryans’ claim is now at a court, and the family
members say after the accident they have had neither harvest nor compensation.

City administration employees and experts are waiting too, hoping that in the
nearest future at least a part of the troubles facing the city will somehow be
possible to solve.

`Certainly Ararat has numerous problems requiring earliest solutions,’ the
Union of Greens’ Lalayan says. `Besides the cement and gold plants, asbestos-
slate production polluting the air is also dangerous for the environment.
There are other facilities functioning here as well. So attention is a must.’

`All of us want everything to be all right,’ Ararat mayor Tovmasyam says. `And
the damage caused to people by the acting facilities should be compensated.
Every year Ararat plants transfer large amounts of compensation money to the
state budget, which should logically come back to our city and contribute to
recovering the environment here, yet nothing comes back. Whereas, if
everything was done reasonably, there would be much less damage.’


By Gayane Lazarian
ArmeniaNow reporter

Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster sent a radioactive cloud
over Europe, European Union efforts to shut down Armenia’s aging nuclear power
plant remain at a standstill.

The EU has offered 100 million euros ($121 million) to close the Metsamor
Power Plant out of concern that the Soviet-designed nuclear plant does not
have a backup containment system to prevent radioactive leaks in the event of
an accident. Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant also lacked sufficient
containment facilities to prevent radioactive plumes from being released
following two explosions at the plant on April 26, 1986.

Environmental groups also fear the plant, just 28 kilometers from central
Yerevan, is vulnerable to earthquakes and that disposal of spent radioactive
fuel creates a cleanup problem that will last generations.

But Armenian officials contend that the plant meets international safety
standards and that steps were taken in the 1990s to protect its sensitive
nuclear reactors from earthquakes.

They warn that prematurely closing Metsamor could mean a return to the dark
days when Metsamor was shut down by Soviet authorities in the late 1980s.

Far from putting an end to Armenia’s nuclear power era when Metsamor is
scheduled to be decommissioned in 2016, the National Assembly is considering
legislation that would open the country to investors who would build a
replacement for Metsamor – a process that could take a decade.

Minister of Energy Armen Movsisyan thinks that Armenia will never be able to
build a new nuclear station without outside investment, and says the EU’s
financing to mothball Metsamor is nothing, compared to what the country needs.

The EU’s offer “does not solve the problem,” Movsisyan says. “First, some $300
to 400 million is needed for the decommissioning of the Metsamor nuclear power
plant. And up to $1 billion is needed for the construction of a new one.”

The minister says the National Assembly should consider ending the republic’s
government monopoly on nuclear energy and allow outsiders to build a new-
generation power plant. “The nuclear station can have also a non-state
monopoly, a widespread practice in the world,” he says.

In 2001, the European Union offered to help finance the decommissioning of
Metsamor as part of its policy of urging former Soviet-bloc nations to phase
out use of Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors. Opened in one stage in 1975, and
in 1980 with two electricity-generating reactors, Metsamor today operates on
one reactor that provides the lion’s share of the country’s electric power –
40 percent.

EU representatives in Yerevan did not respond to ArmeniaNow’s requests for
interviews on the Metsamor policy.

Zaven Kirakosyan, a physicist and director of Arev Nuclear CJSC, says the EU
has supported the closing of similar reactors in Eastern Germany, and two of
the six reactors were shut down in Bulgaria, which is scheduled to join the EU
next year.


The Ararat Valley, dominated by two-headed Mount Ararat, is the symbol of
Armenia. A good view of it opens from high places in Yerevan. The wide valley
of the Biblical mountain is the home of Metsamor’s four cooling towers and the
town built by the Soviets for plant workers.

Vladimir Sokolyan, who was deputy head of the civil defence department in
Soviet Armenia in 1987, says that during those years people were not worried
about the construction of a nuclear station in the country. Metsamor had been
turned into a huge construction site to which people from different corners of
the Soviet Union had come to work.

The first energy unit of Metsamor was launched in 1976, the second in 1980.
The estimated operational time for both units is 30 years.

But some of those who witnessed the planning and construction of Metsamor say
that the choice and location of the nuclear station had aroused a wave of
concern among the population.

Hakob Sanasaryan, president of the environmental group Union of Greens, says
that the approval of the project in March 1969 prompted 24 well-known
scientists to send a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of
Armenia questioning the safety of the site because of the potential for a
catastrophic earthquake in the Ararat Valley.

Ashot Mnatsakanyan, current deputy chief of the Inspectorate for Nuclear and
Radiation Safety Regulation, says that the plant has been strengthened to take
into account seismic threats.

Regulatory officials also say Metsamor’s spent nuclear fuel is safe. Spent
fuel rods can remain radioactive for generations, and safe disposal has
stirred debates in other nations since the 1960s and ’70s-the heydays of
nuclear power plant construction.

Radioactive wastes at Metsamor are reprocessed and kept in special temporary
storage facilities at the plant site. The waste is eventually shipped in
hardened canisters for disposal in Russia.

Others point out that Metsamor was untouched by the 1988 Spitak earthquake
that devastated the Shirak region, killing at least 25,000 people.

“The Spitak earthquake was felt at the nuclear station with a magnitude of 4-5
points, which absolutely did not hinder its work,” says Friedrich Arakelyan,
director of the Nuclear Energy Seismic Project, an engineering and geological
research company in Yerevan. “The engineering and geological conditions are
that naturally the station is based on rocks that … have a property of
absorbing rather than strengthening shocks. It is also for this reason that I
say that the plant is situated in the best construction site in the world.”

But the quake, combined with concerns about another Chernobyl, did prompt
Soviet authorities to shutter the plant in 1989.

MP Arshak Sadoyan says the fact that the Soviets closed the plant in the wake
of Chernobyl and the 1988 earthquake suggests there is a risk.

“The nuclear station was closed when everyone understood the scale of its
risk, especially after the Chernobyl tragedy,” Sadoyan says. “Now they say
there is no seismic risk. But if there is no risk, why was it closed?”

There is no risk, according to National Service of Seismic Protection Agency
Deputy Head Artur Manukyan because: `A comprehensive study of the territory
was conducted before the re-commissioning not only by our specialists but also
international organizations under the supervision of the IAEA, which did not
give permission until it made sure that it could not cause any undesirable
consequences from the seismic point of view.’

Manukyan says, too, that the latest report produced by his agency for the
IAEA – completed earlier this year – concludes that the power plant is
earthquake resistant.

Arakelyan explains that the Metsamor plant enjoys a favorable geological
peculiarity not normally found at other nuclear sites.

The station, he says, is built on a base laid thousands of years ago by
volcanoes, meaning that the upper layers of the earth’s surface are more solid
in the Ararat valley than in typical areas.

Nevertheless, such data is not convincing to deter European Union concerns.
Its 100 million Euro grant for alternative energy is on offer, but not until
the Armenian Government announces a specific date of the plant’s shutdown.

Physicist Kirakosyan explains that the EU’s concern is for first-generation
reactors and `safety measures are simply external and have nothing to do with
the reactor’. The EU will continue its demand, he says, `because there is no
second-shield protection.’


Economist and Member of Parliament Tatul Manasaryan says that if the EU
allocates such a sum, it means that it creates an absolute interests for the
nuclear station to be closed.

`But they don’t provide grounds why. The only reason they consider is that it
is old. Then how come the same time, the EU will allow a new one to be built?
It is a paradox. And at this moment shutting down the nuclear station means to
be deprived of electric power and find ourselves in darkness again,’ he says.

The current sitting of the National Assembly is engaged in debate on
amendments to Armenia’s energy laws, including enabling private investment in
the field of nuclear energy.

Chairman of the National Assembly Commission on Finance-Legal, Economic and
Budgetary Affairs Gagik Minasyan explains the advantages of a private nuclear
plant for Armenia. According to him, while in the past the EU categorically
demanded that the ANPP be closed, today its position is softer, allowing for a
new station that `will have regional importance’.

With ten years left until 2016 lawmakers think changes in the law are overdue.
The construction of a new nuclear station would take at least eight years.

`The draft law must create a legislative framework that will enable countries
that have significant experience in nuclear energy to make investments also in
our country,’ Energy Minister Movsisyan says.

But economist Manasaryan is against abolishing the state monopoly in nuclear
energy. He thinks that it is a serious threat especially for Armenia’s

`They are concerned: and what if it explodes? It is necessary to preserve the
monopoly for responsibility. Otherwise, we become vulnerable to such
criticism. There is only one step between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons,’
he says.

And MP Sadoyan thinks that emergencies connected with a nuclear station in a
small country like Armenia may result in the destruction of the whole country.

`There must be state control. The control package of the nuclear station to be
built must belong to the state, and it should have the monopoly for
management,’ he says.

For environmentalist such as Union of Greens’ Sanasaryan, the question who or
where or how much or when regarding nuclear energy should not even reach

`There is no nuclear station in the world working safely,’ he says.


By Gayane Lazarian
ArmeniaNow reporter

Sergey Grigoryan climbs the stairs of his Metsamor home with difficulty. The
sound of his steps muffles his asthmatic breathing. Although the weather is
cold, Sergey drinks water without satisfying his thirst.

`My husband chokes, he has so much difficulty with breathing, the air is not
enough for him, he gasps for breath after climbing the fourth floor,’ says his
wife, Magda Grigoryan. `All this affected his thyroid glands. His throat

Grigoryan, 48, was one of three workers at the Metsamor nuclear power plant
who inhaled dust of a radioactive metal in a 1986 accident at the Metsamor
nuclear power plant near Yerevan. Two other workers, Aramayis Gasparyan and
Surik Shirvanyan, were with him at the time.

`We were polishing the pipes through which the water to cool down uranium was
flowing. The pipes should have been deactivated, but weren’t. During the work
we in fact breathed in cobalt, which is a heavy metal,’ Grigoryan explains.

Six years after the accident the sixth specialized clinical hospital of Moscow
gave them a diagnosis of their disease: `Carriers of cobalt 60, under the
influence of radioactive elements…’ Of the friends, one, Surik Shirvanyan,
died nine years after the accident, at age 34.

Since1992 Grigoryan and Gasparyan have been considered partially disabled. But
they continue to work at the plant. It is not a choice, but necessity.

Today like many they continue to live in Metsamor and work at the NPP situated
seven kilometers from the town. Metsamor residents hear with horror that the
NPP may be closed. No matter how much they complain of health problems, the
radioactivity, all the same the NPP remains their only workplace.

`We know by heart that we must not eat mulberry and strawberry growing here,
they are most subjected to radiation. But what shall we do, where should we
go?’ Magda says.

For years, the men were sent twice a year to Moscow for treatment that is not
available in Armenia. But not anymore.

The men say there were told there is no money to pay for their treatment
anymore. They are now sent to the Yerevan Scientific Center of Radiology and
Burns, but the men say the results of their respiratory treatment are not as
effective as they were in Moscow.

`We choke for air, we can’t get enough air,’ Gasparyan says.

Representatives of the state-run Metsamor did not respond for requests for
comment on the treatment of the two workers.

But 20 years after the accident, Armenia’s nuclear regulatory agency, the
Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety Regulation, maintains that
Metsamor is a safe place to work and meets the standards and requirements of
the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ashot Mnatsakanyan, deputy chief of the inspectorate, and Aida Avetisyan, the
agency’s chief specialist in radiation safety, provided reports on radioactive
exposure at Metsamor. The highest admissible dose of radiation, or rads, is
five per year.

Grigoryan, Gasparyan and Shirvanyan were exposed to 1,000 rads (an amount of
energy absorbed by one gram of tissue) in the 1986 accident.

Mnatsakanyan says all workers get regular checkups.

`There is no one who has exceeded even two rads,’ Avetisyan says of workers at
Metsamor. `We examine when (nuclear) fuel is transported or received. We look
at how many people received it, in doing that work they get permission, in
which it is written how many rads they can receive.’

State Nuclear Control specialists also give assurances that the nuclear power
station poses no danger to people living in the nearby town of Metsamor, or
anywhere else in Armenia.

Government statistics also show no unusual levels of radiation in other parts
of Armenia.

But Magda Grigoryan, whose husband has suffered for years from his workplace
accident, isn’t so sure that life outside the plant is safe.

`We have witnessed an increase in diseases, especially breast cancer among
women, lung and prostate cancer among men,’ she says. `We don’t know whether
it is because of the nuclear station or not.’

Doctor-radiologist, toxicologist Lev Artishchev says that high doses of
radiation cause the human organism to change its biochemical processes.

`Headaches, tearfulness, cough, ache in the throat, and then changes in
tissues begin. A complex chemical process begins, and specialists call this
process the radiation disease,’ he says.

State Nuclear Control specialists give assurances that the emissions and
exhaustions of the nuclear station do not pose danger to the population.

`This is liquid emissions through the pipes and correspondingly the
radionuclide composition. We conclude from these figures that the nuclear
station cannot impact people. The population lives much farther than immediate
radiation can affect them, 5-6 kilometers on the direct line. There is no
direct impact of radiation,’ Avetisyan says.

Environmentalists, though, worry about potential Metsamor problems other than
fallout. Of specific concern is the matter of nuclear waste disposal.

Radioactive wastes of the ANPP are reprocessed and kept in special storerooms.
The project of the ANPP does not envisage burial of wastes. The depot of
radioactive wastes with high activity is in the reactor hall. Radioactive
wastes with medium activity are kept in special tanks of the reactor workshop.
After being concentrated they are stored `in a special subsidiary building’.
Solid wastes with low activity are gathered, transported and placed in a near-
surface storage located on the ANPP’s platform.

During Soviet times solid waste was shipped for storage in Russia. But last
year the Russians said Armenia would have to pay for any future storage.
ArmAtom director Vahram Petrosyan says that work is under way for a new
storeroom that should be ready by the end of next year that should safely hold
the waste for 50 years.

`We’ll live and see what happens in 50 years. Either we will have new
technologies that will allow us to use that all again or on the contrary to
receive new fuel from the burned one. In short, we will decide in 50 years,
let’s not speak about it today,’ he says.

Meanwhile, while potential closure is a major concern, talk of a possible new
nuclear plant to replace the current one in Metsamor (see `In the Shadow of
Chernobyl’) is good news according the town’s 10,000 residents.

They are not happy, however, that their electric bills are not reduced as a
compensation for having the plant in their town – as it was during Soviet

`I work at the nuclear station, get 1,000 rads and I am supposed to pay 100
percent for electricity. I am ruining my health and am I supposed to pay for
that, for what?,’ says the disabled employee Aramayis Gasparyan. `That’s the
pain, I am supposed to suffer without defending my rights, my health has been
ruined, nothing is left of my lungs. They don’t provide us with transport to
get to the station, do you understand that?’.


Arpi Harutyunyan
ArmeniaNow reporter

Armenia’s forests and urban green spaces barely survived the energy crisis of
the early 1990s. Fifteen years later the nation’s forests are again under
threat, this time from illegal logging, corruption and the lucrative trade in

Non Governmental Organizations engaged in environmental problems say that
while focus was centered on damage from the energy crisis (1992-93), greater
damage has been done to the forests of Armenia since a market for lumber
emerged afterwards.

`The forest cuttings started spontaneously in the 90s,’ says Hakob
Sanasaranyan chairman of Armenia’s Union of Greens. `Then they became
systemized and then powerful statesmen took the monopoly of cutting forests in
their hands. From provinces that had abundant trees, firewood began being
imported to the Ararat valley for sale. That is how the inhuman exploitation
of forest began.’

Today, trees in the republic’s three most heavily forested areas – the Tavush
and Lori regions in the northeast, and south-eastern Syunik – are being cut at
such a brisk pace that World Bank and environmentalists predict the landscape
will be denuded in 20 to 30 years.

According to the `Hyeantar’ SCJSC (State-run closed joint stock company) the
last records of the forests in Armenia were done in 1993, when the massive
illegal cuttings were still ahead. (`Illegal’ is defined as cutting trees
without a license, or over-cutting, in the case of commercial use.)

According to the latest data — which is 13 years old – Armenia has 334,100
hectares of trees – 11.2 percent of total coverage.

Environmental NGO Armenian Forests’ research shows that Armenia is losing some
1 million cubic meters of trees annually from illegal logging – equivalent to
about 8,000 hectares of forests.

According to Zhirayr Vardanyan, head of Forestry Studies at Yerevan
Agricultural Academy, 28 to 30 percent of Armenia should be covered in forests.

Chief Forest Supervisor of Armenia Ruben Petrosyan says the last forest-
planting in Armenia took place in 1988-1989.

`In the 1980s seeding was significant; it is witnessed by the size of
artificial forests – nearly 50,000 hectares,’ Petrosyan says. `In those years
there were almost no illegal cuttings. First, there was no energy problem.
Trees were rotting. Besides, there was no demand for wood.’

Now, 47 percent of Armenian forests are considered `middle age’; 26.3 percent
are mature. Only 10.6 percent are young trees.

Experts say the low percentage of young forests is evidence of unsatisfactory
natural restoration, as certain types of types of trees have brought to the
edge of extinction.
As a result, not only the density, but the makeup of the Armenian forest has

Natural seed restoration is especially inadequate in oak forests, where
undesirable changes of species are taking place. Oaks, for example, are being
replaced by hornbeams, a type of beech. The phenomenon is noticeable
particularly in Syunik province. A former forestry supervisor there, Vladik
Martirosyan, says diversity of the forests has been severely impacted.

`Trees that are very important for reproduction are cut today. That is, the
cutting takes place not for sanitary purposes or occasionally, but
selectively. That means they choose what is expensive,’ says Sanasaryan.

Cutting of oak as well as Greek walnut is prohibited in Armenia (these two
types are most expensive and the Greek walnut is registered in the Red Book as
endangered). According to a law adopted last year, violators of the forestry
code can be fined up to 50,000 drams (about $112) per illegal cutting.

The Head of World Wild Life Fund Armenian office Karen Manvelyan illustrates
Sanasaryan’s claim with an example.

`Last year the pine-tree forests of Stepanavan – considered to be a preserve –
were cut. The head of the village administration was charged, but he was
backed, naturally, by officials – just as in all cases of large-scale
logging. Besides it is beyond doubt that the greater part of illegal cutting
cases is never disclosed,’ says K. Manvelyan.

`The once verdant forests have either turned into brushwood or have totally
been exterminated,’ says Vladik Martirosyan, a former forestry official and ex-
director of the Shikahogh Forest Reserve in southern Armenia. `A forest is a
whole condominium – if there are no trees, the fauna and the water will be

Chief Supervisor Petrosyan does not deny that Armenian forests are damaged.
But he insists the situation is not catastrophic.

`As in all countries, it is impossible to immediately stop the cuttings
because they are directly connected with the social-economic condition of the
country, employment and the living standards of people,’ he says. `But today
the illegal cuttings are not massive.’


The demand for wood is driven by a multimillion-dollar lumber export business.
According to the Republic of Armenia’s Statistical Service, in 1999 slightly
more than one ton of lumber was exported from Armenia. By 2003, wood exports
topped 10 tons.

Armenia’s ties with furniture-producing countries, such as the United Arab
Emirates, Italy, etc. have become stronger, the demand has grown, and Armenia
has types of trees, oak and Greek walnut, for example, for which demand is

The appetite for lumber has led to corruption, according to current and former
forestry officials interviewed by ArmeniaNow.

“As a rule the large-scale tree cuttings take place with the participation of
the representatives of the forestry agencies,” says Rafik Andreasyan, who was
head of the republic’s forestry agency in the Kapan region in 2003 and 2004,
and also a former deputy mayor of Kapan.

“It is unambiguously that way, because you need either documents with false
permission or you need to act secretly. In both cases the mediation of someone
from inside is necessary. Those kind of things happened also during my
administration and I have fired some officers myself and later criminal cases
were brought to action against them.”

Petrosyan says low salaries for forestry regulators make them vulnerable to

“There are many cases when the forest supervisors themselves take part in the
illegal cuttings,” Petrosyan says. “Before 2003 the monthly salary of the
forest keepers was 6,000 drams (about $15) that of the forest supervisors and
the director heading the forestry of 40,000 hectares was 13,000 (about $25)
and 20,000 drams (about $40) respectively. In those conditions it was
inevitable that the supervising people would be involved in the business of
illegal cuttings.”

Martirosyan, the former forestry official and ex-director of the Shikahogh
Forest Reserve, says he resigned to protest corruption.

“I can recall the times of my incumbency I was told they will give me the keys
for a BMW immediately if I permit cutting eight Greek walnut trees in the
Kapan forests. I went mad. I spit upon my position, wrote a resignation letter
and left,” Martirosyan says.

The former Shiakhogh director says Greek walnut, an endangered tree, and oak
are in demand and bring top dollar – about $800 or more per cubic meter for
processed wood – in markets in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and

Beech tree and hornbeam, abundant in trees in the forests of Tavush, Lori and
Syunik regions, are also popular trees for lumber exports.


Authorities say new laws that impose penalties of up to 50,000 drams (about
$112) per tree will help stop illegal logging. They also point to steps that
are being taken to crack down on abuse.

According to the new Forest Code penalties are determined according to the
diameters of the tree stumps. If the stump diameter of a rare or valuable tree
exceeds 30 centimeters, penalty for each cm is 1500 drams ($3.50) for example
cutting a 35 cm-stunk tree the penalty will make 52,500 drams (about $120),
whereas up to 30 cm the penalties are fixed sums. For common trees the fine
is 500 drams (about $1.20).

Several forestry workers have been forced to resign for alleged corruption,
and the Ministry of Environmental Protection says it has brought 46 civil
charges, and criminal charges against 10 violators, representing trees worth
1.2 million drams (about $2,730) in Kapan.

Lyova Gevorgyan, head of the Kapan Forestry Agency, says stronger supervision
and enforcement have nearly eliminated industrial logging in the Kapan region,
where tree stumps pockmark once-wooded hillsides and valleys. He attributes
the brunt of the illegal logging to poor people who have no other sources to
heat their homes or cook their meals.

“Socially unprotected people have been the main illegal cutters of the
forests,” Gevorgyan says. “It is impossible that people from outside come and
cut trees in these distant forests.”

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office has filed criminal charges against
the forest supervisor in the village of Dsegh, in Lori province, for illegally
cutting about 220 trees in 2004-2005. Another case has been brought against
the representatives of the 4th maintenance department of the forestry agency
in Tumanyan region, also in Lori marz, for the illegal cutting of 333 trees.
Though they face heavy fines, observers say the potential profit is considered
worth the risks.

But Karen Manvelyan of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says illegal logging
continues with the complicity of regulators, and that a few prosecutions will
not resolve a corruption problem.

“No matter how many criminal cases the law-enforcers bring into action, the
forest cuttings will continue as they are done with the mediation of the
representatives of forestry agencies with the sponsorship of high-ranked
officials,” says Manvelyan, who heads the WWF office in Yerevan.


At the start of the last century, one-quarter of Armenia was forested, but
today forests account for less than 10 percent of the country, according to
Armenian Forests, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to reforest parts
of the country.

Replanting efforts launched by the government and public organizations have
not kept pace with the tree coverage lost to logging. `Our Armenian forests
have undergone degradation and there is no proportionate spread,’ explains
Zhirayr Vardanyan, head of forestry studies at the Yerevan Agricultural

Mher Sharoyan of Armenian Forests paints a more dire picture of the
future. `Even if the density of our trees drops only a few percent, the forest
self-restoration function will be lost. Consequently, forests will be lost as
an ecosytem.’


Marianna Grigoryan
and Arpi Harutyunyan

It is getting hard to breathe in Armenia.

Deforestation and deteriorating air quality have caused asthma and other
respiratory ailments to increase dramatically in the last decade, health and
environmental officials say. Children are especially at risk.

`While a few years ago the youngest child suffering from asthma was five-to-
six-years-old, we have found the illness also with one-to-two-year-old infants
in recent years,’ says Andranik Voskanyan chief lung specialist for the
Republic of Armenia. `This is the reaction of the human organism to the
environment. The organism does not catch up to the pace of changes in the
environment in struggling with them and adapting itself.’

Overall, the republic’s Ministry of Healthcare reports that the number of
people suffering from respiratory ailments has grown by 45 percent, from 5,108
per 100,000 people in 2001 to 7,500 per 100,000 in 2004.

Armenia has experienced rapid changes beginning in the 1990s, first as a
result of the energy crisis that prompted large-scale deforestation and the
virtual disappearance of places like Yerevan’s Nork Forest, and later as tree-
cutting and industrial logging continued. Meanwhile, the transformation of
Yerevan city center into a series of café malls has eaten into urban parks and
vital green space.

Health and environmental officials say this is a double blow for the
environment and public health: deforestation leads to erosion and an increase
of dust in the atmosphere, while loss of urban green spaces also means fewer
trees to filter carbon emissions from automobiles and industries.

Statistics from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Non Governmental
Organizations involved in reforestation cite a rapid decline in the country’s
green umbrella. In Yerevan alone, according to the independent Social
Environmental Association, the amount of green space has fallen from 32
percent of the capital in 1986 to 7.6 percent last year. Ministry of
Environment Protection statistics show the city’s wooded area is just 2


`Yerevan is on the edge of environmental disaster,’ says Karine Danielyan, a
former minister of Environmental Protection. `The center of Yerevan is already
a zone of ecological catastrophe.’

The environmentalist says her dramatic claims are backed by opinions of common

Danielyan’s NGO, For Sustainable Human Development, conducted a survey of 300
residents of Yerevan in which 90 percent voiced concern about the loss of
green space and air and water contamination. Most said the cause was poor
urban planning.

`In former times, when there were building projects in Yerevan, the
circumstance of not hindering the winds was taken into account. Today the city
authorities do not pose such a question for themselves,’ says Danielyan.

Whatever the cause, the result is that Yerevan, always a `windy city’, now
also becomes a `city of dust’.

Danielyan says disappearing trees in the republic is creating a `semi-desert

`In the recent years Yerevan is constantly losing the characteristics that
provide necessary conditions for human living,’ says Srbuhi Harutyunyan,
president of the Social Environmental Association. `The decrease in green
areas in its turn affects the quality of air.’

The green areas have gradually been destroyed especially in the center of the
capital giving place to modern style cafes and entertainment centers – their
owners mainly high-ranked officials or their relatives. (See `Café Culture’.)

`In the recent years the number of young people with serious skin problems
visiting me has increased,’ says Iza Harutyunyan, a cosmetologist with 20
years of working experience. `I am sure the problems of a large part of them
are directly connected with the polluted air.’

The skin specialist’s observation is consistent with the respiratory doctor,
Voskanyan. And both bear out the numbers offered by the Social-Environmental
Association whose research found that the content of heavy metals in the
Yerevan environment. Yerevan exceeds permitted levels of: lead, by 6.4 times;
silver, 4.4; zinc, 3.7; chrome, 3.2; nickel, 1.8; and molybdenum, 1.4 times.
It is, experts say, a dangerous index.

While the debate about climate change and declining air quality is a global
one, environmentalists in Armenia say Yerevan’s disappearing trees has come in
tandem with a rising number of vehicles. In 2000 there were approximately
227,000 registered vehicles in Yerevan. By 2005, the number had grown to
300,000, an increase of 32 percent – during a time when the city’s green space
had decreased by an equivalent amount. Those factors combined, officials say,
contribute to 97 percent of Yerevan’s pollution being caused by vehicles.

Under new rules regulation of emissions inspection has been placed under the
authority of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Before, it was overseen
by the Ministry of Interior. Vehicles undergo annual emissions inspections, at
a cost of 1,200 drams (about $2.50). Special outlets have been opened for the
cars to undergo checking to find out to what extent the gas emissions
correspond to the permitted limits.

Environment Minister Vardan Aivazyan says the new inspection regime will help
reduce pollution. Vehicles that fail the emissions test will not get a window
sticker, exposing drivers to fines.

Tapan eco club environmental NGO president Hrant Sargsyan says the impact of
the emissions of cars on the air basin would not be that noticeable if the
green areas had not been eliminated in Yerevan.

`One should not put the blame for polluted area on car emissions. Had our
green zones not been removed, there would not be such a crisis in Yerevan
today. If trees remained the air basin could make self-filtration and those
emissions would be digested’ Sargsyan says.

Cocktail of pollutants

Environmentalists say emissions control is only a partial solution. They say
illegal logging and a trail of wood being exported to Iran, Europe and other
areas is outpacing efforts to replant forests. They also blame pollutants from
mines and smelting operations in southern Armenia and in industrial Alaverdi
for the decline in air quality and rise in health problems.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Monitoring Center reports that
levels of dust exceed the government’s own permissible limit in Alaverdi,
Ararat, Gyumri, Vanadzor and Yerevan. In some industrial cities, pollutants
such as sulfur dioxide – a toxic gas that is an ingredient in acid rain –
also exceed limits that are considered healthful.

Acid rain, which results from the mixture of precipitation with high
concentrations of sulfur dioxide and other toxins, can be carried long
distances and can damage or destroy ecosystems and pollute waterways.

Forty kilometers from Yerevan, in the valley town of Ararat, residents
complain of dust from the local concrete plant and gold mine.

`When the wind blows, the city is lost in a dust whirl,’ says resident Ararat
Hakob, 70. `That dust covers us from top to toes.’

Residents also told ArmeniaNow that runoff from the gold mine has polluted
irrigation channels and ruined vineyards, orchards and gardens. Some residents
have filed lawsuits seeking compensation for damage, alleging that industrial
toxins have hurt their livelihoods.

Data from the Ararat Gold Extraction Plant show that it produces toxins such
as hydrogen cyanide, sulphur, carbon monoxide, ore dust and chlorine vapors.
Plant ecologist Anush Gevorgyan says the company operates within limits
permitted by the Armenian government.


Ararat Mayor Hakob Tovmasyan says the town – which is dominated by the peaks
of Mount Ararat – is taking steps to clean up the environment. The town has
launched a tree-planting program and has been awarded a $32,000 grant from REC-
Caucasus to help restore green areas.

But for Ararat and other industrial and mining towns across the country,
pollution may represent a trade-off for economic survival.

`My father, who has spent the most part of his life working at the cement
plant, says that dawn makes sense to him when he can see the smoke of the
cement plant,’ Mayor Tovmasyan says. `That way of thinking has been passed
over to me: the cement plant smoke is symbolic to me, meaning that the city is
alive, the people are employed.’


By Gayane Lazarian
ArmeniaNow reporter

On a spring day in Armenia, two forms of energy go mostly unused – the
republic’s abundant sunshine, and its pleasant breezes.

While steps are being taken to exploit the wind, Armenia remains a country
largely dependent on electricity from nuclear power. And the future looks
little different as the National Assembly considers a replacement for the
Soviet-built Metsamor nuclear power station.

Even Viktor Safyan doesn’t see Armenia without a nuclear future. Safyan is
president of Solaren, a company owned by American-Armenian businessman Gerard
Cafesjian that specializes in wind, solar and geo-thermal power and is now
building wind power plants in the republic.

Safyan says economically profitable wind farms could produce about 18 percent
of the country’s energy demands, now about 5.5 billion kilowatt hours of
electricity per year.

The only operating nuclear reactor at Metsamor is expected to be shut down in
2016, at the end of its 30-year lifespan. Energy Minister Armen Movsisyan says
that Armenia lacks sufficient natural energy resources to replace nuclear
power, which generates nearly 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

Geo-thermal power – using pockets of hot underground water to generate
electricity – is expected to be introduced to Armenia next year. Currently
thermal power plants produce nearly 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

Hydroelectric power, including the Vorotan and Sevan-Hrazdan cascades, and a
number of small plants, provides about 20 percent of the nation’s power supply.

Thirty-eight small hydro-power stations are under construction in the country,
but Movsisyan says these will only provide 10 percent of the country’s
electricity needs.


Solaren’s president – as well as Armenian environmental groups – see wind
power as a natural source and following a trend of many European countries
that are seeking earth-friendly alternatives to nuclear power and
hydroelectric plants, which damage fish and wildlife habitats.

The first wind farm consisting of four turbines with a total capacity of 2.6
megawatts was commissioned last year. So far this year, several applications
have already been submitted to the government for construction of new wind

The first wind farm – built by an Iranian firm – began operating on December 6
in the Pushkin mountain pass. Preparatory work is being done for constructing
turbines in Sotk mountain pass, in Vardenis, and in Sisian.

Other potential locations for wind turbines are in the northern part of Lake
Sevan and at the foot of Mount Aragats.


Solar energy in Armenia is largely limited to home uses. Solar water heaters
sell for about $300, with installation adding as much as $600 to the cost.
While the initial cost is expensive, installers like Safyan’s Solaren company
point to the long-term benefits of energy-free hot water.

At the American University of Armenia, a pilot project was started in 1999
that, today, provides the university with hot water and cools the auditorium,
using solar panels.

Deputy Dean of Engineer Department Artak Ghambaryan says AUA’s solar water
heaters are very profitable today, when the prices for oil, gas and energy
grow yearly. Ghambaryan says going solar is worth the initial financial
investment because eventually energy will be produced free for up to 25 years.

`It’s an endless source of energy, it gives energy independence and does not
contaminate the environment,’ he says.

The university has also invested $50,000 in photo voltage plates for
collecting energy, in a program funded by Ameerican-Armenian benefactor
Zhirair Turpanjyan.

Beginning last week, students at the Mkhitar Sebastatsi educational complex
can take hot showers after sporting classes, thanks to a solar heater promoted
by the Tapan Eco Club NGO as part of an energy resources school project. The
SunEnergy organization installed the unit, which can heat water to 80 degrees

Hrant Sargsyan, chairman of the NGO, says it is a pilot program and has cost
$1,430 dollars. The NGO is looking to put such devices in two other schools.

`The expenses are paid back in 6 years if we compare it with electricity;
compared to gas – in 10-12 years. The life expectancy of the solar heater is
50 years minimum,’ says Mikayel Martirosyan, director of SunEnergy.

The Hrashk Agrospasarkum dairy farm near Yerevan is using another source of
energy to generate electricity – manure. Animal waste is burned to generate
electricity, and the ash is sold to farmers as fertilizer, according to Safyan.

But Gagik Minasyan, chairman of the National Assembly’s finance and economic
affairs commission, says that Armenia’s past energy crisis means nuclear
production remains the backbone of the nation’s energy supply.

`If we undertake nothing beginning today, then in 2016 we will again face
energy hunger. In this case we must build a great number of thermal power
plants and extend our dependence on the outer world. Raising tariffs will hit
our people. Or we will use less energy and will be left behind in the
competition race,’ Minasyan says.


The cost of decommissioning Metsamor and replacing it is estimated at $1.5
billion. Some physicists say there may be a less expensive nuclear alternative –
using compact nuclear reactors like those built in Obninsk, Russia, first
designed for submarines and later modified.

The National Academy of Sciences last year sent a letter to the energy
minister, saying that the use of the reactors designed in Obninsk may be a
promising alternative to conventional reactors specifically designed for
nuclear energy stations like Metsamor.

Proponents of using these reactors, including physicists at the Yerevan
Physics Institute and Arev-Nuclear Company in Yerevan, say the Russian-built
reactors would reduce the cost of a new power station by half.

Chernobyl workers: No monument to emergency workers, but extra help for health

By Gayane Lazarian
ArmeniaNow reporter

In the days following April 26, 1986, Armenians were rounded up and taken by
Soviet authorities to an unnamed destination. Some were told they were being
taken for work to Kazakhstan.

They were in fact being taken to the site of the world’s worst nuclear
disaster. About 400 died after they were exposed to radiation fallout at the
Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Now those whose lives were risked say they deserve a monument for their
involuntary service.

But there will be no monument to the 3,000 workers from Soviet Armenia who
were sent to assist in the emergency. The Yerevan Municipality earlier this
year rejected a request to build a monument in the Malatia-Sebastia community.

Some 2,600 of the workers survive today, of whom 1,500 are listed as disabled.
An organization that represents them, the Chernobyl Association, has lobbied
for more medical assistance for the disabled workers and for a monument to all
those who responded after the accident.

Two explosions rocked the Chernobyl plant 20 years ago, sending radioactive
fallout over Belarus, Ukraine, Europe and Russia. Thirty-one people died as an
immediate result, including 28 from acute radiation syndrome.

The Armenians and more than 220,000 other Soviet workers took part in the
clean-up operations within 30 kilometers of the nuclear plant. Many of them
are thought to have received high doses of radiation.

The Chernobyl Association contends that rescue and clean-up personnel were
sent to the emergency without protective clothing and without being warned of
the magnitude of the disaster.

In 1994, Armenia was among the first of the former Soviet republics to sign a
declaration on the adoption of a social protection and health rehabilitation
law for people exposed to radiation at Chernobyl. Twenty years later, however,
there is still no such law.

But Chernobyl Association Chairman Vardan Gevorgyan says the state has not
done enough to help people who became sick from radiation exposure.

The government allocates some 130,000 drams (about $290) which is to include
expenses for hospitalization, medicine and doctors’ fees – after which about
10,000 drams (about $22) annually are left for each patient. Gevorgyan says
10 to 15 times that much is needed for appropriate treatment.

To mark the 20th anniversary, the government allocated nearly 2.2 million
drams (about $4,780) to the Association. About 70 families whose relatives
died received 10,000 drams (about $22). Other families received various aid.

Gevorgyan hopes more money will be provided to increase the annual healthcare


By Marianna Grigoryan

According to a specialist in economy and the environment, Armenian towns such
as Ararat or Alaverdi needn’t rely solely on outside help to finance
protection against industrial health risks.

Conditions in both those towns are examples of the republic’s need for the
jobs industry provides, but also of the potential unwanted impact of factories
on the environment and residents’ health. (See `Dirt Poor’ and `The Breath of

Legislation exists that requires corporations such as a cement factory in
Ararat or a smelting plant in Alaverdi to designate funds for public use in
cities where enterprises are located.

Authorities in some cities say that the money never reaches them.

Specialists at the Ministry of Environmental Protection say that often the
reason money doesn’t reach the intended target is because the very city
officials who complain about not receiving it are themselves to blame, for not
filing documents to make a claim.

Erik Grigoryan, Co-Chairman of the Environmental Lawyers and Economists Youth
Association NGO, says his group’s studies show that neither management of
factories nor city officials have sufficient understanding of the law.

`That’s the reason they are frequently forced to make additional non-
substantiated expenditures, engage in various deals with different structures
and hire additional workforce, while everything could be regulated by means of
the existing legislation,’ Grigoryan says.

According to Grigoryan and others in the field of law and environment,
millions of drams are paid to the state budget by industries that produce
hazardous emissions – an environmental damage tax of sorts – in compliance
with a law passed in 2001.

The payments first go to the state budget as a compulsory payment made by the
community to the state budget. Then, it is incumbent on the community to apply
for a rebate, according to its plans for reforms in environmental protection
and solution of healthcare problems.

Ashot Harutyunyan, Head of the Department for Economics of Environmental
Protection and Environmental Exploitation at the Ministry of Environmental
Protection explains the legislation had two aims: to enforce the concept that
the one who contaminates should be held liable and, to make them contaminate
less and pay less.

`And the second, it was supposed that the collected payments for environmental
protection would serve to their aim in an ideal manner; that is, they would be
invested in the environmental restoration works on a given area,’ says
Harutyunyan. `At present those environmental payments serve their aim for
nearly 40 percent. But the index gradually grows parallel to the development
of the country.’

Harutyunyan says the regulation of the sphere is extremely important for the
development of the country.

`Of course paying attention to social issues is important especially for
developing countries, but, if environmental issues are regulated along with
the social ones, it contributes to sustainable development,’ he
says. `Environmental protection and restoration of environment are the
questions that need urgent solution. If delayed they will cost the state
multiple times more.’

Grigoryan says that the law was not made use of at first, and much of the
money available for local government use, remained in the state budget.

In 2003 1.1 billion drams ($2.5 million) went into the budget from companies,
for environmental compensation and in 2005, 2.6 billion ($5.9 million).

In 2004, members of the youth environmental NGO got support from the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and launched a
series of training programs aimed at educating local officials on the fine
points of the law.

`Before those trainings, only the Alaverdi community managed to get just
131,400 drams (about $290) once. This year the situation has drastically
changed,’ says Grigoryan.

`The sum we got for the first time remained unused because it was so small
that could do nothing in a town like Alaverdi with its variety of
environmental problems,’ says the Mayor of Alaverdi Artur Nalbandyan. `But we
hope this year everything will be different, because we have adopted a new
approach to this problem and have come up with a more complete and
substantiated program.’

The city has, for example, written a proposal asking for money to improve the
diets of children in Alaverdi, some of whom suffer health problems because of
copper-smelting emissions.

`The most vulnerable among the population exposed to the activities of the
Armenian Copper Programme Closed Joint Stock Company are children who need
additional attention and care,’ reads the Alaverdi appeal. `We plan to provide
additional food products – dairy products, fruits, meat products – saturated
with vitamins to six kindergartens within the implementation of the program.
The implementation needs 6.8 million drams (about $15,000).’

The amount of money to be allotted is determined by special experts.

According to the program for 2006 nearly 20 million drams (about $44,450) and
10 million (about $22,225) will return to Alaverdi and Kajaran communities
respectively to serve the aim.

To get money for environmental protection issues communities first submit
projects to the Ministries of Environmental Protection and Healthcare to have
it approved by the experts, and then to the Sanitary-Epidemic Station and the
Ministry of Finance.

But the experts both in the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the
economic entities claim the mechanism is not quite clear and creates
additional problems.

`Besides being informed the local administration bodies need support in
preparing environmental protection projects. Not everyone is capable of
preparing a project, especially in a manner as to correspond to all the
standards,’ says Harutyunyan, of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

`While five years ago my opinion on the development of the sphere was not that
optimistic, today I have a different view. The economy gradually develops, the
people’s attitude towards environment and environmental protection changes. I
think in this case the despair is not relevant, we just need to work.’

Anush Gevorgyan, environmental expert at the Ararat Gold Mining Plant is
confident that besides the lack of specialists for writing argumented
programs, the communities view the mechanism of `returning money’ as a complex

`I think the mechanism is not that simple and that’s the reason the system is
not formed yet,’ she says.