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Armen Stepanyan: “All the environmental risks of exploitation of Amulsar are manageable”

Mediamax talked to Environmental and Social Manager of “Geoteam” Armen Stepanyan about the environmental risks and the impact of exploitation of Amulsar.

- Your company has studied all the possible risks of exploitation of Amulsar mine. What was the conclusion in terms of environmental risks?

- To assess the environmental and social impact, international independent companies with the apporpiate expertise and experience have carried out large-scale scientific and research work, as a result of which it was established that the exploitation of Amulsar mine imposes no risks that cannot be managed. Generally, depending on the type of the possible risk, there are various methods for decreasing impacts in today’s mining industry.

For example: the management of dust. We intend to place the crushing plant in a closed building at Amulsar. This has two positive sides: reduction of noise and dust by 90-95%. When we visited the leading mines of various countries, the crushing plants were not always in enclosed buildings. This is an indication as to how even international standards have got tougher over the last few years as former risk reduction methods are revised and sometimes even totally renewed.

- What are the guarantees that the Amulsar program is really implemented in line with international environmental and social standards?

- In addition to the Company’s environmental and biodiversity policy, one of the most important guarantees is that two of our institutional shareholders - the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – have the toughest environmental and social standards. In early 2000s, a number of banks and financial institutions signed a document creating the “Equator Principles” which demands that  the programs requiring over a $10 million investment must have an international environmental and social impact assessment and follow the relevant best practice standards to get any project funding from the signatory banks. Thus, we are committed to apply and are applying international environmental and social standards.

- Many ecologists are worried that the exploitation of Amulsar gold mine will seriously damage the biodiversity, including flora and fauna, of the area.

- The preservation of biodiversity around Amulsar can be totally managed. We have carried out more than 4 years of baseline studies and through research with the participation of renowned experts from Armenia and various countries and leading universities of USA, Great Britain and Australia. The company is committed to an offset project, if necessary, as recommended by all leading conservation organizations. Proper risk management also implies a mine design twined with footprint management that will allow us to avoid sensitive areas. This is what we call applying the international best practice.

In terms of biodiversity, we have marked or delineated all the sensitive areas where a number of conservation activities are carried out, including collection and preservation of seeds peculiar to this area. Parallel to it, we also conduct works aimed at the rehabilitation (re-cultivation) of these areas.

We have carried out a comprehensive study of bird species diversity recently, including raptors. The EBRD experts who visited in 2013 noted that we had conducted scrupulous baseline studies in line with the strictest international known standards. We can therefore assure you that biodiversity management will be carried out in compliance with the best international experience and that these international institutions (EBRD and IFC) will monitor and make sure we do so.

- The ecologists are also worried with the fact that as a result of exploitation of the open mine the quality of water resources in surrounding areas will be also endangered.

- These concerns are mainly related to the heap leach facility. Heap leaching with cyanide solution is widely spread especially in USA, Canada, South America, Russia, Asia and Australia. This is a “zero discharge” technology which has the safest environmental monitoring system. In addition to a single liner to avoid any direct contamination, there are monitoring holes around the heap leach and the water samples will be checked once or twice a day. In case of a theoretical leakage, the gold contained in the solution would also leak; therefore it is in everyone’s interests to ensure that this does not happen: the strictest control also proceeds from economic efficiency. This technology is well tested and such is the confidence in it that in the USA Heap leach sites have been placed within a couple of kilometers of tourist towns and even fresh water lakes.

- Is there a study about what influence explosion works may have on Jermuk? Won’t they endanger the mineral water springs of Jermuk?

- The international mining experience suggests that we should react to all significant concerns no matter how substantiated they are. In response to these concerns, we have conducted and published a very thorough set of stability and water studies with the participation of international experts (including Golder Associates) which concluded that the explosion effects due to be tens of kilometers away from mineral water springs on absolutely different altitudes even theoretically cannot have any impact on the water quality. We have also completed an Isotope study which demonstrates that the Jermuk springs are not connected in any way to the Amulsar aquifers.

- Won’t the explosions cause landslides in surrounding areas?

- Theoretically this is possible if the explosions are carried out in a landslide zone. This is why before doing anything; even construction works, relevant geotechnical studies and stability assessment are conducted. In accord with all the geological and engineering studies, there is no such danger at Amulsar.

We are sufficiently confident in these results that we are building, a 35-40 meter high building several hundred meters away from the mine, where the crushing plant will be placed. The equipment will cost millions of dollars. Naturally, if it carried even small theoretical danger of landslides we wouldn’t be placing such an expensive equipment there.

- In the long run, what impact will the mine exploitation have on the health of people living in these areas?

- We have collected and studied the list of diseases existing in these communities for conducting a comprehensive monitoring in the future. A full Health Risk Assessment has been carried out by a reputable international consultant.

There is an often held opinion in Armenia that people living around the mine should necessarily have health problems. A well-managed modern mine should not impose any danger on people’s health, just like it doesn’t in dozens of developed countries.

The main potential issue may be the safety and the health of employees. This is today easy to solve by implementing safety rules that are in place in all modern mines, including by strict enforcement of health and safety policy, adequate training, independent audit and introduction of mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE).

The scientific baseline study has also denied the concerns about the high level of radiation in Amulsar. According to official data collected by independent experts, the natural radiation background on the top of Amulsar is even lower than in Yerevan.

These studies come to prove that our Company is committed to its sustainable development approach, in enforcing its own policies and consistently responds to concerns voiced.

- How does the absence of a positive mining experience in Armenia affect your company’s activity and what are you ready to do to create a positive precedent for us?

- We believe that the consistent use of the international experience and implementing best practice will help change the attitude of many to mining industry. A poll was conducted in Australia this year, which showed that 90 percent of country’s population had a positive attitude to mining industry. This is certainly the result of a proper technical, environmental and social management.

This year we have visited the United States with the heads of communities surrounding Amulsar to see a modern mine and heap leach process. We went to mines that are located only 1,2-2 kilometers away from communities. Blasting are carried out there, cyanide is being used on heap leaching, while surrounding communities benefit from mining activities, since all the risks are controlled and the economic benefits are obvious.

Every human activity, starting from the construction of a building to the exploitation of plants and factories, contains environmental risks. Everything depends on the correct management of these risks. There is no need to invent a bicycle. Today’s mining industry introduces new technologies every year and adopts more stringent standards, and it’s important to be ready to follow them.

Armen Stepanyan was interviewed by Siranush Yeghiazaryan.

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