YEREVAN -- Responding to dire warnings from ecologists, Armenian authorities have moved to clean up a toxic-waste burial site near Yerevan that appears to have been dug up by unknown intruders several months ago, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The Soviet-era site located near the city's southern Nubarashen suburb contains more than 500 metric tons of DDT and other poisonous substances that had been used by Armenian chemical enterprises.
An Armenian journalist and several environmentalists discovered late last month that the site had been broken into and chemicals dangerously exposed.
"The site was deliberately dug up," said Edik Baghdasarian, a prominent journalist whose Hetq.am website was the first to report the emergency. "I still can't understand who got in, removed the two-meter layer of land, and unearthed those poisonous chemicals."
"Some people intruded into the site with heavy trucks, felled the fence, and dug up the site," said Karine Danielian of the environmental group the Association for Sustainable Human Development. "Now poison has come up to the surface."
"This is a serious environmental disaster," Danielian told RFE/RL. She said the toxic substances are being washed away by rainwater and are threatening to pollute the whole area.
"Local residents have not been warned about how dangerous that site is and have continued to graze cattle there," complained Danielian.
The Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection acknowledged the gravity of the situation on May 6.
"The site must definitely be closed," Anahit Aleksandrian, the head of a ministry department dealing with toxic-waste disposal, told RFE/RL. "It must definitely be taken under control because the situation is dangerous."
The government approved some $82,000 in emergency funding for that purpose at a weekly meeting held earlier on May 6.
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian also ordered the ministries of environment, emergencies, and agriculture to jointly devise within the next six months a plan to destroy the chemicals buried at the Nubarashen site. He said the destruction process will be costly and require funding from Armenia's foreign donors.
But critics have accused authorities of not acting quickly enough, saying the government was aware of the damage to the site two months ago.
"Our authorities don't realize that when it comes to disasters, the first thing they must do is to warn the population of the dangers," said Baghdasarian. "They should have at least told villagers not to collect hay or graze their cattle there. I'm astonished that they haven't done that for two months."
Aleksandrian gave no clear reasons for the belated government response. She said only that it is wrong to accuse her ministry of inaction and single it out for blame.
"That's everyone's problem, including the ministries of health, agriculture, environment and emergencies and the [Yerevan] municipality," she said.