Romania split over Europe’s biggest gold mine

Critics claim project will shaft the town of Rosia Montana, but defenders say it’s a golden opportunity.

Rosia Montana, Romania – Andrei Gruber lights a cigarette and points through his kitchen window to where a Canadian mining firm wants to set up Europe’s biggest open cast gold mine and change the face of this sleepy Romanian town forever.

The 28-year-old knows mining well. Gruber’s ancestors came to Rosia Montana hundreds of years ago to scour the hills for precious metals. But a scheme by Gabriel Resources is bigger and more destructive than anything this community has seen before.

“Mining is what created Rosia Montana, but that doesn’t mean mining should also destroy it,” Gruber told Al Jazeera. “They cannot start the project while I’m still here. They can’t build a pit over my head. I’d rather be killed at my doorstep.”

The plan has raised tensions in Rosia Montana, pitting neighbour against neighbour, as some residents take mining jobs while others oppose the multi-billion-dollar scheme that could boost the size of Romania’s economy by one percent.

What began as a local row has snowballed into nation-wide protests, with anti-mine rallies that attract 15,000 people in the capital, Bucharest – giving a Romanian flavour to street action that has rocked Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and other countries this year.

A fractious debate has seen environmentalists, archaeologists and constitutionalists united against a foreign mining consortium, which they say will plunder Romania and pollute the Transylvanian countryside with cyanide.

The biggest benefit is providing jobs in an area of extremely high unemployment. It's the largest investment on the table for Romania.

by - Dragos Tanase, manager

Mine supporters laud a much-needed boost to Romania’s coffers. They hint at meddling from Moscow and the Hungarian-American tycoon George Soros who, they say, want Romania to remain an economic backwater.

Magdalena Suciu, a Rosia Montana resident for 30 years, says Canadian investment is a “great opportunity” for an area that has suffered from high unemployment since the state-owned gold mine stopped digging ore in 2006. She has held several jobs at Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, an entity that is 80 percent owned by Gabriel Resources and 20 percent Romanian-owned.

Suciu says she will open a restaurant to cater to tourists who will come when mining money starts flowing. There are tensions here, but the people in opposition are very few.”

Roman times

Gold hunters have flocked to the Apuseni Mountains as far back as Roman times, when miners followed veins of rich ore by digging deep into the hills around Rosia Montana, which means “Red Mountain”. 

The corporation wants to mine the estimated 314 remaining tons of gold and 1,480 tons of silver by extending Rosia Montanas existing two pits and digging two new ones ultimately blasting four mountain peaks into rubble.

A processing plant will use cyanide to extract precious metals, and the remaining sludge will be dumped behind a 184-metre-high trailing dam in the nearby Corna Valley during the project’s 20-year lifespan.

The company has acquired 60 percent of the required land from 80 percent of owners, says manager Dragos Tanase, adding it will employ 900 staff, drum up new business, and earn Romania’s government $5bn. 

The biggest benefit is providing jobs in an area of extremely high unemployment. Its the largest investment on the table for Romania, and could be the start of a new mining industry and an engine for growth for Romanias future, Tanase says.

He describes the mining project as a key decision for this country of 22 million people, which saw the overthrow and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 but has not yet attracted major foreign investment, despite joining NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007.

Gabriel Resources has been in talks about the mine for 14 years now. The shareholders are frustrated and could sue Romania’s government if there is no progress, Tanase adds. “Investors are looking at us. As soon as Rosia Montana starts, many other investors will come to Romania.”

Geologists calculate there are 314 tons of gold [James Reinl]

Ecological concerns

But environmentalists say the costs are too high. They warn of toxic chemicals and highlight the Baia Mare spill in 2000, when cyanide from a Romanian gold mine leaked into the Danube River, killing fish in the polluted waters of Hungary and Serbia.

“The people of Rosia Montana earn an income from tourism, making honey and collecting forest fruits like blueberries and cranberries,” said Tudor Bradatan, an activist with Mining Watch Romania. “But nobody’s going to buy anything from an area with the biggest cyanide lake in Europe.”

Cultural watchdogs have also joined the protests. Mining tunnels in the area were originally dug by engineers from the Roman-era and are an archaeological treasure – but many of them will be buried if new mining operations go ahead.

Anti-mine protests have gathered momentum this year, since the government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta proposed a bill to speed up the approval process. A commission is set to report on the controversial bill on November 10.

Anti-mine protesters have now been joined by nationalists who warn against a foreign company that uses an aggressive television advertisement campaign to convince Romanians, and those who see Ponta’s parliamentary bill as unconstitutional.

“A potentially profitable mining project was undermined by the government’s haste, incompetence and lack of guts to make a decision on an unpopular subject,” says Sorin Ionita, an analyst for Expert Forum, a think-tank. “This is how the cycle of protests started: blaming the government’s opacity and, allegedly, corruption in the Rosia Montana gold mining case.”

There is too little information about the cost, benefits and risks, and whether the company can pay for any potential environmental disaster.

by Ana Otilia Nutu, Expert Forum analyst

The company has abandoned its original plans, which would have involved the bulldozing of Rosia Montana. It now presents the project as a sustainable scheme involved in preservation and the clean-up of past mining activity.

It is conserving some of the Roman mines and developed plans for cleaning nearby streams, which run red with old mining chemicals. Once the gold has been mined, the corporation says it will carpet the open pits with rolling fields of grass.

Struan Stevenson, a Scottish member of the European Parliament and president of the body’s group on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, described an “eco-friendly project that ticks all of the biodiversity boxes”.

‘Filthy’ politicians

But many Romanians remain unconvinced.

“No matter how good it might have been, the project has zero credibility and should start from scratch,” says Ana Otilia Nutu, an Expert Forum analyst. “There is too little information about the cost, benefits and risks, and whether the company can pay for any potential environmental disaster.” 

Back in Rosia Montana, Gruber, who runs a hostel decorated with the mining helmets and lamps of his forefathers, says he will fight to the end. Now that this issue has tapped into a broader sense of anger among Romanians, he says he can win.

“Rosia Montana was the spark,” he says. “It’s not just about the gold mine anymore. It’s about how filthy the politicians are and how disgustingly they’ve been treating this country for too long.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera