The Mystery of Mining Waste Dumped In An Armenian School

Beyond Akhtala, the site of our very first cleanup project in Armenia (read more in Armenia’s Toxic 10th-Century Monastery), our team came across various other polluted sites including a school, which apparently had been used as an informal dumping ground by a mining company.

We found mounds of highly toxic waste all around the school grounds (see photos below). We were shocked and very concerned to see children playing around the exposed piles of poison, unaware of the dangers. Obviously, this called for immediate action, and we began planning on a mode of action.

Shortly after, however, to our surprise, we found that the toxic materials had suddenly vanished. Someone had come and removed the toxic waste away from the school in the middle of the night! We can only guess where it has been re-dumped.

We found the contamination at the school and identified 29 pollution sites as threats to the health of Armenians following two years of field research conducted through a partnership between Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth and the American University of Armenia. This was the first independent, comprehensive assessment of toxic pollution in Armenia.

By spotlighting pollution in Armenia, we are making the threat more visible to prompt cleanup and raise awareness. Dumping toxic waste at a school should not be tolerated anywhere in the world.

While the immediate danger to children at the school we assessed is reduced, there is no guarantee that more toxic materials will not be dumped there in the future. As to what happened to the dangerous waste that was mysteriously moved in the middle of the night? Did it end up in another school or neighborhood? For now, there is no way to know.

Toxic dump at school

Red arrows mark where the highly toxic piles of mining waste had been dumped on the school grounds.

Toxic dump at school

Red arrows show the close proximity of the school buildings to the mounds of toxic waste dumped on the school grounds.

Armenia’s Toxic 10th-Century Monastery (PHOTOS)

The modern world has finally caught up with Akhtala, a historic town with a 10th-century monastery and church in Armenia.

Years of mining and metals processing have provided jobs to the community, but at a grave cost.  The grounds of the historic building, a community focal point where children play and residents picnic, is contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic and heavy metals that is poisoning residents.


The polluted site is one of 29 in the country that were recently identified as threats to the health of Armenians, following two years of field research conducted through a partnership between Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth and the American University of Armenia.

This was the first independent, comprehensive assessment of toxic pollution in Armenia.

[Related: The Mystery of Mining Waste Dumped In An Armenian School]

“When you think of Armenia, you don’t immediately think of pollution. In fact, not many people within the country grasped the scope of the threat partly because they did not have any way to assess, identify and measure the levels of contamination,” explained Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“So one of the first things we did was to bring over two piece of equipment to Armenia.  One to measure lead levels in blood, and the other to analyze heavy metals in soil. That proved groundbreaking.  The deadly pollution, which they could not see before, was suddenly visible.”

Toxic Ravine

Toxic Ravine: The area on the left, which looks like a bare field, is the location of a deep V-shaped ravine that has now been filled nearly to the top with toxic mining tailings dumped there.

Blacksmith/Pure Earth experts found toxic pollutants such as heavy metals and banned pesticides.

Over the past few months, we have conducted various educational campaigns to alert residents to the dangers.  Now, we are moving that effort to the U.S. to raise awareness among Armenians here in support of the cleanup.

Last week we invited Armenians in the New York and New Jersey area to the latest edition of our popular toxic cocktail event, where guests learn about global pollution while drinking custom-made concoctions given a lethal look.

The event, generously hosted by Diana and Charles Mkhitarian, moved us closer to our $25,000 goal to fund the first cleanup project in Armenia to remove or contain the contaminated soil at Akhtala.  The project will serve as a model for cleaning up the rest of the country.  Please donate to help complete funding for this effort so that we can begin life-saving remediation next year.

To learn more about global pollution and what you can do to support crucial cleanup work in poor countries, contact us about hosting a toxic cocktail party.


Businessweek Chronicles Dangerous Cleanup, Blacksmith/Pure Earth’s Global Successes

Ukraine pic










“Fuller and Pure Earth (Blacksmith) have amassed an impressive record of success. But nothing could have prepared them for a situation like the decrepit Soviet dynamite* factory.”  [*Note:  We want to clarify an error in the article.  It was not a “dynamite” factory.  The facility housed TNT.]

– The Chemical Weapons Ukrainian Separatists Didn’t Get, Businessweek, Sept. 2014

Businessweek spoke with Richard Fuller recently about one of our most dangerous cleanups, and chronicled the advances Blacksmith Institute/Pure Earth has made in the fight to spotlight and deal with the world’s growing toxic pollution problem. 

Note: This project was supported in part by the EU Delegation of Ukraine, and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).  Dow Chemicals was also a donor.


About Blacksmith’s Toxic Sites Identification Program:

“Until now, it’s not really been possible to evaluate how many people are exposed to hazardous waste and pollution and to calculate the human cost of that each year. And that’s something remarkable that Blacksmith’s done.”

– Dr. Philip Landigran, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.

About Pollution – A Fixable Problem:

“And this is why Fuller gets so passionate, Landigran says, “because it’s finite—it can be fixed. It’s not like a disease we don’t have a cure for. He can look at the levels in the environment or in people’s blood and see the progress.”

About the “toxic dump on top of a bomb” site in the Ukraine:

“If the site where we were operating were shelled today, it’s likely that a dozen people might still be killed, but it wouldn’t be the calamity it could have been… It’s just awful that the place is under such siege, but we managed to truck off and destroy about 10,000 tons of truly lethal materials. I’m really grateful we were able to complete the work when we did.”

— Richard Fuller, President, Blacksmith Institute/Pure Earth

Read the full article in Businessweek – The Chemical Weapons Ukrainian Separatists Didn’t Get, Businessweek, Sept. 2014


A Deadly Secret: The Story Behind The Cleanup of a Former Soviet Arms Site

TCE coverJust how hard is it to clean up a toxic polluted site sitting on top of a “bomb,” at a secret site?

This month’s TCE magazine features the story behind our work dealing with one of the most dangerous examples of legacy pollution – the toxic remains of Soviet arms production.

In a former Soviet town, a secret chemical factory sat abandoned for more than a decade with hundreds of drums of leaking toxic chemicals near tons of explosives. The plant was a toxic dump on top of a forgotten ‘bomb’ in the centre of a city housing 290,000 people. It had all the components and potential for a historic and horrifying industrial accident. 

Read the rest of the story, a first hand account by Andrew McCartor, Pure Earth/Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.



Mercury, Mining and Mongolian Ninjas

Mongolia old man

This week’s post comes from Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who was recently in Mongolia.


There is no preparing for the Mongolian winter. When I stepped onto the tarmac in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the early morning of February 10th, the cold shot straight through my two winter jackets as if to mock them.

It was -31 degrees Fahrenheit (-35C). I was in Mongolia to kickoff a two-year project to support healthy, sustainable livelihoods in rural Mongolian mining communities and to introduce mercury-free gold mining methods.

Size of Western Europe, Population of Brooklyn

Mongolia is approximately the size of Western Europe, but with the population of Brooklyn. So if you’re picturing a sweeping, beautiful and little-inhabited landscape, you’ve got it. In fact, much of Mongolia looks like the old default Microsoft Windows background with the rolling green hills and cloud dotted sky.

At its height, the Mongolian empire was the largest contiguous empire in history, spanning from Korea to Hungary. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the economy was in disarray and many Mongolians returned to the traditional nomadic lifestyle of herding livestock.

20% of Rural Mongolian Workforce are Gold “Ninjas”

Between 1999 and 2002, Mongolia experienced three consecutive dry summers followed by extraordinarily harsh winters (apparently worse than the balmy -31F I was experiencing). During this period, 11 million livestock animals perished, wiping out the income source for much of the rural population.

Photos: Garrie Pixerten and Enkhbold Sumiya

These events, combined with a surge in the price of gold, enticed more than 100,000 Mongolians (20% of the rural workforce) into the small-scale gold mining business by 2007.

Throughout the country, these miners are referred to as “ninjas.” The etymology of the term ninja seems to stem from the green panning bowls that the miners carry on their back, resembling the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yes, really).

This sudden and dramatic increase in informal mining activity threatened both the environment and public health. The primary risk was the widespread use of mercury to separate gold from mined dirt and rock. Mercury is a potentially deadly neurotoxicant. Once released into the environment, it can quickly enter the food chain and poison people and animals.

In 2008, the Mongolian government banned the use of mercury in mining. Without a suitable alternative, many miners were immediately faced with the choice of either losing their livelihood or continuing their work illegally. With the generous support of the European Union, Blacksmith Institute is now working to provide such an alternative.

From Philippines to Mongolia: Testing a Mercury-Free Alternative 

MongoliaFor at least the last thirty years, independent miners in the Philippines have been effectively and efficiently extracting gold without the use of mercury. These miners use a method to separate gold from other material that is commonly referred to as the “borax method” or “direct smelting method.” This method uses a environmentally benign substance, borax, to reduce the melting point of gold, thus allowing miners to smelt (or melt) the gold out of the other material. You can find a more complete description of this process here, or watch a video.

Over the next two years, Blacksmith Institute will work with the Mongolian government, civil society groups and miner’s collectives in Mongolia to conduct environmental monitoring, health education, training in mercury-free mining methods, and other programs to provide mining communities with a safe, legal and sustainable source of income.

After a very positive project inception meeting, I look forward to collaborating with the many public, private and non-profit actors that have already made great progress on this issue. Mongolia is a dramatic and beautiful country, with incredibly warn, hospitable people. I am eager to come back, but never again in February.

Mongolia plains animals



At the Roof of the World in Tajikistan

This week’s post comes from Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who is currently in Tajikistan.

The small, mountainous country of Tajikistan is a former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan to the south and China to the east. I am in the capital, Dushanbe, to help the Tajik government prioritize its response to environmental health threats from pollution, and to design a strategy to secure funding for pollution cleanup projects.

Mountains cover more than 90% of Tajikistan, and half of the country sits 10,000 feet or more above sea level.

The Pamir mountains of Tajikistan are formed by the intersection of five mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, thus earning it the title the “Roof of the World.”

The flight from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is the most dramatic and beautiful that I have experienced. For several hours you traverse mountain ranges that appear to extend infinitely in all directions.

As the conference to kick off our project opened on Saturday morning, it began to snow heavily. By the end of the day, the city was paralyzed and the airport was closed. It remained closed for three days, and I settled into the reality that I might be there for some time. Admittedly, there are worse places to be stranded, and this break afforded me the rare opportunity to oblige our communications department and file this report from the field.

With little arable land and a turbulent political history, the economy of Tajikistan has long suffered. Tajikistan is the poorest of all Central Asian countries. Despite not having a large industrial base, Tajikistan has more than its share of environmental challenges, particularly from uranium and stocks of dangerous, obsolete pesticides like DDT. These are not new problems.

Most of the pollution results from activities during the Soviet period, and while these threats have been assessed and documented by a variety of international agencies, little has been done to actually improve the situation. Several local colleagues told me that Tajikistan is the setting for countless international “paper projects” that culminate in reports, but few that result in real action. That is why Blacksmith Institute is currently working to secure funding to conduct much-needed physical cleanup work here.

Tajikistan is ethically and culturally similar to Afghanistan and Iran, and shares those countries’ unrivaled traditions of hospitality. After our meeting, a man offered to take me to his family’s home in the Pamir mountains for four days. He refused my offer to pay even for the gas required for the 14 hour drive. While the snow has foreclosed that unique opportunity during this trip, I will certainly take him up on his offer upon my return.

The environmental professionals I have worked with in Tajikistan are capable and dedicated, but they need help. The country is poor, and the toxic dumps left from the Soviet era continue to make people sick. It’s always hard to arouse people’s passions about a foreign place that they have not experienced first hand. So, if you can, come to Tajikistan. It will reward the adventurous handsomely.

Eliminating Obsolete Pesticides in the Former Soviet Union

Over 40% of the world’s stockpiles of obsolete pesticides, around 200,000 tons, are estimated to be still present in the former Soviet Union Republics including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova and Russian Federation.

Blacksmith has been invited to join the Food and Agricultural Organization-EU partnership project (development of capacity to improve pesticides management in the former Soviet Union).

Blacksmith have been asked to focus their efforts on the assessment of health and environmental impacts from pesticide-contaminated sites in the region.

Obsolete pesticides can be found abandoned at hundreds of unprotected sites, often stored in underground bunkers. Original pesticide containers are leaking their toxic contents into the soil and water, posing a major risk to nearby communities and the global environment.

Blacksmith will work to consolidate the existing inventory data on pesticide-contaminated sites, develop assessment protocols for each country in the region, assess the risks and threats in at least 60 contaminated sites, and design remediation at two high priority locations with at-risk populations.

The multi-year effort is supported by the European Commission and the Global Environment Facility and implemented in cooperation with national government partners, civil society groups, the pesticide industry and other U.N. Agencies.

Read the Jan 2014 newsletter

Snapshots of Progress in 2013 – EASTERN EUROPE/CENTRAL ASIA

  • Stopping A Ticking Time Bomb In The Ukraine
  • Keeping Radiation Out of Schools In Kyrgyzstan
  • Groundbreaking Work In Armenia

Blacksmith identified and assessed 128 contaminated sites in the region, bringing the total number of polluted communities documented in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to 462.

The main sources of pollution in this region are mining and chemical production. Some are remnants a bygone era. Some sites, like the abandoned Gorlovka chemical plant in the Ukraine, are like ticking time bombs,” says Andrew McCartor, Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Stopping a Countdown to Disaster in the Ukraine:
In 2013, Blacksmith continued work at Gorlovka. Nearly all the explosive TNT stored in the dilapidated plant has been removed and secured in a guarded facility, while the 15,000 tons of highly toxic mono nitrochlorobenzene (MNCB) stored near the explosives have been removed and disposed of by the government. See PHOTOS and VIDEO Slideshow.

Keeping Radiation Out of Schools In Kyrgyzstan:
In Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, where uranium was mined for the atomic bomb, Blacksmith installed additional water filters in seven schools to protect children from exposure to dangerous levels of radionuclides every time they turn on the tap.  This year we also trained 284 teachers, doctors and nurses, and municipal officials on methods to reduce risk. VIDEO: See schools in Mailuu-Suu and children’s dioramas

A First In Armenia:
Another highlight is our work in Armenia, where we developed the first and only comprehensive assessment of polluted places in the country, and set up a system for them to be able to start working on a solution.

Not many people understand the impact of pollution in Armenia partly because they have not had ways to measure the threat.  So we brought over two piece of equipment to Armenia.  One that measures lead levels in blood, and the other to analyze heavy metals in soil. Now they are able to do a level of analysis and research that is really groundbreaking for the country.”