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.


Engaging the Chinese Public in Environmental Issues

China is currently facing a wave of dissatisfaction over the state of pollution in the country with calls for greater transparency. A new Blacksmith project might just have a solution. This report is from Abby Schultz in Blacksmith’s China office:

The Blacksmith Institute is piloting a soil remediation project in Hunan Province that is giving the Chinese insight into how to engage the public in environmental issues, specifically remediation.

The project comes at a time when the Chinese public has become more aware and concerned about environmental pollution in the air, water, and soil, and as the Chinese government considers changes to the 1989 Environmental Protection Law to encourage public participation, among other things.

The purpose of this effort is to promote improved environmental governance in China, and it is being done with the European Commission and matching funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. The Chinese Research Centre for Public Policy (CRCPP) and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the China Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR-CAS) are partners.

The soil remediation project in Deng Jia Tang Village, Chenzhou City, Hunan, is the first of two pilots that will be used to show how to include the public in an environmental remediation project.

In Deng Jia Tang, 20 hectares of farmland was deserted in January 2000 after an industrial accident at a local factory producing arsenic-related products discharged toxic wastewater into the environment, contaminating the groundwater used as a drinking water source for the village.

The accident reportedly resulted in two deaths, 249 hospitalizations, and 885 people were found to have arsenic in urinary samples.

Now, residents of the village want to remediate the farmland so they can plant again. The project is engaging the public by working with local village committees and village representatives who have been asked to be part of a project stakeholder group. This group will be the main point of contact for informing the community as the project progresses.

This past spring, seven representatives of the village attended a meeting with the project team. The representatives, who have lived in Deng Jia Tang for more than 20 years, expressed a strong desire to remediate their farmland.

By involving the public in the cleanup project, local Chinese environmental officials should experience how engaging the public openly and transparently can lead to better community relations, build trust, and ultimately help the project succeed. Another objective is for other local governments to see the benefits of this approach and adopt it.

The plan in Deng Jia Tang is to use phytoremediation techniques to remove arsenic from the soil. Phytoremediation is the process of stimulating microorganisms already in the soil to speed up the transfer of toxins—arsenic in this case—into carbon dioxide.

At the meeting with the village representatives, the team explained the current status of the tainted soil, the plans for phytoremediation and how it works, and the estimated cost and timing for the project.

Creating workable methodologies for engaging the public in environmental remediation could prove useful on a national scale, where the government is considering changes to environmental law to improve transparency, emphasize the role of popular opinion, and to encourage participation by the public in environmental reviews of major construction projects, according to The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based publication.

“These amendments have been added as a direct response to the frequent outbreaks of ‘mass incidents’ or protests in recent years that are said to have been caused by a lack of ‘public supervision’ over decision making and a failure to share information,” the Observer said.

Read more about the project.