15:12, May 17, 2010
An Interview with John Vijgen, Director of International HCH & Pesticides Association
Mr Vijgen, you visited Armenia nearly a month ago, what was the goal of your visit?
I had to do a scoping mission for the feasibility study of the Nubarashen burial site. The first Sunday I came and directly visited with OSCE staff and the Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment NGO, an organization that has been working for the last decade on the problem . We went together to the site. They told me that some people opened this site. In our discussion I did not realize that it was so bad.
You described the existing problem as an ecological disaster. Do you really think that it is dangerous for the people living near the burial site?
Yes, it is very bad. When we went to the burial site, we parked the cars on the road, and then we walked down. Before I could even see the site, I could smell it from perhaps a kilometer away. This was very strange because I did not expect it. When I saw the site it was terrible. It seems the landfill wasn't that big originally, but now it has completely spread out and grown very big actually.
Of course, now the site is uncovered. There is a direct risk as there are often cattle around and due to air emission, if you live near to the site. And of course you will have another risk. Armenian people wrote me that the site has been flooded, and of course if it is flooded, it means that a lot of dissects are flowing down to the people. The other thing, that we do not know yet, is what about the presence of deep ground water. You must see that the Nubarashen landfill, suppose that is a couple of meters deep, is laying and a kind of a sand/sediment bed. And this sand/sediment formation is about 15 to 20 meters deep up to the solid rock. Now it is important to know if the bottom of the burial site has a clay layer, that should protect the spread of pollution. This has never been investigated, so in the next months we will have to see what drillings we have to make to reach the ground water; if there is pollution or not. The original design from 1977 very clearly shows this bottom layer but we do not know if it has been built correctly. This is very important question to be answered.
In your opinion what immediate steps must ne taken to avoid more serious damage?
I think the first step is the risk assessment to be performed by Mr Kevin Helps of FAO who is now in Armenia. He will assess the direct spread of the pollution and a laboratory analysis will be made to judge the real situation. Afterwards, he will assist the authorities to conduct a professional closure of the site. This means we will put a new cover on again after the original cover has been removed, but we do it temporarily, meaning this cover should be done quite fast, nothing will run out any more by the rain. The, after that closure, we have to sit down and seriously decide what to do with this site.
And what are we going to do with the toxic site?
If we have the temporary closure, it is just one step. But there are various options. For example, as far as we can see there are now 5 ways of solving this problem. One option is to keep everything like it is and be sure that nothing gets out. This means this cover must become a permanent cover, a very strong cover. But in case the burial site is leaking into the groundwater we have to avoid the pesticides contamination flowing via the groundwater aquifer downstream . Depending on the results of the groundwater investigations, for example, a barrier of bentonite cement can be constructed together with a well system that withdraws the contaminated water and treats it. Also, we have to look at what is happening with this landslide area. What does it mean if over the years these walls will move? For example, you have very steep hills with very high erosion. What does it mean if we keep this landfill here for the next 20 years; what can happen in such isolation?. So we have to look at that. The second option is that we will treat the waste. That means that the landfill, as is, will be treated. For example, there is a method, which is a kind of vitrification, that makes a kind of glass out of the waste. This is caused by very high temperature. If this is done there will be no more run-off. This like a black material kind of glina.
And the third option is you bring a treatment plant to the site. This means we have to excavate it and treat it at the same location. A fourth method is that you excavate the material, transport it to a selected big store, for example outside of Yerevan, and bring a treatment installation there and destroy the waste in Armenia. The last method would be the same procedure as option 4, but then you would export all the waste to one of the big hazardous waste treatment plants in the EU.
As a professional and specialized expert in this field, can you tell us what the international experience of solving such a problem is.
There is a limited experience. POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) and obsolete pesticides had been mostly dealt with till now. So there is a lot of experiences with other and similar hazardous wastes, but the market for the pesticides has been relatively small for the last years. But there is experience in containment technologies and isolation dating back to Soviet times. But of course these are solutions where the problem will stay at the same place. In our case, we can say that after 30 years we are really confronted with the same problem.. There is some experience on glassification or on treatment on-site. For example the other way can be to take all the material away from the site. That means that we have to excavate it and then to bring it, for example, to one of the huge warehouses outside Yerevan, and temporarily store it there. Then you can decide if you can treat the material with an plant in Armenia, or to bring that treatment plant to Armenia. If not, you have to export the waste to one of the big treatment plants in Europe.
For example, where could the waste be exported to?
In the EU there are different countries, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom that have a plant. France and Germany have different plants, and recently Poland has become active in the international market with a plant. There are7 or 8 countries, which have very good capacity and can deal with this. You have to compare the cost of exporting the waste to one of these plants with that of bringing such a treatment plant to Armenia and decide what is most cost-effective for the country.
Is it so expensive? How much will it cost?
Yes, it will be expensive. For the each ton you will bring to the EU with excavation, transport in Armenia, export to the treatment plant in the EU, you will to pay between 2,500 and 3,000 Euros per ton.
Is there any country that has faced a similar problem? How did they solve it?
This specific problem is a problem of the whole region. All the former Soviet Union countries have been using high amounts of pesticides in the past. In the former Soviet Union such materials had been stored in many of the kolkhozes (state farms). In the 1970's and 1980's, plans were begun in the Soviet Union, like here in Armenia, to collect all the pesticides. Many of them of them had become old and could not be used anymore, plus a number of the pesticides like DDT were already banned. In the 70's and 80's, these so-called pesticides sweeps had been taking place in Georgia, Azerbaijan, as well as many Central Asian countries. They have a lot of these burial site. There is burial site in Armenia, in Georgia, and Azerbaijan and there are several ones in Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has a burial site in each region.
Mr Vijgen, are you acquainted with the National Implementation Plan (NIP) for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants? If so, how would you assess the productivity of the program?
I know the plan. At the time the priority was not pesticides. The main priority was PBC, mainly from transformers and capacitors from the electricity companies. However in the Action there it is standing that on the site of Nubarashen there should be investigations and assess how big the problem is. The good thing in the Nubarashen case is that the Minister of Agriculture was very clear when I was there. He said that this emergency situation is, in principal, an opportunity to clean Armenia. Let's start with taking an inventory of all wastes in the country, collect them all and finally destroy them. This will help create an improved agricultural sector with clean farm products and strong international demand.
I found the reaction very stimulating, that they said, ok, we have been neglected and we have willingness to transform Armenia to the better. If people are willing to co-operate with each other, like now, and they are aware about the emergency situation, I now see that we can work together on this specific issue because the OSCE is taking the lead and trying to get donors to work closely together. Thus, we really can help Armenia to eliminate this problem in the next years.
We would compare the alternatives I discussed before, their technical aspects and costs. We would also gauge the risks and benefits to the population for each of the proposed solutions. This feasibility study will take the rest of the year and probably we must then have recommendations and discussions with the participation of all interested parties, from government and society working together to decide what the final solution should be. Then in 2011 we must draft a proposal for financing. We would need a large number of donors. We will make a tender and invite international companies to make a technical and financial how offer to solve the problem in the way we want it. I will say it will take a couple of years to get the final solution.
Did you meet our politicians and warn then about the problem? What was their reaction?
A had a lot of meetings. I meet with the Ministry of Emergency, OSCE Ambassador Kapinos, who was very supportive, the Deputy Minister of Health, the Minister of Agriculture. I would say we have had very frank discussions and all understood the emergency situation at hand and what had to be done. Everybody is aware of the problem. If we work together and set up a nation-wide program for inventory and elimination, then, in the next 5 to 10 years we can finalize all these things. We need a strong commitment, to prioritize the issue at the national level and to constantly request the assistance of international donors to resolve this issue once and for all in the near future.
Nubarshen Toxic Dump - Situation Worse Than the International Expert Expected