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Story Publication logo August 23, 2011

Thirst for Gold Threatens Historic Mining Center in Romania




Toxic Riches

Poorly regulated mining and refining facilities are causing enormous devastation, while corporate...

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The grandeur of the Roman Empire was bankrolled with gold from Rosia Montana's mines, and some of the original tunnels still exist, offering invaluable treasures to archaeologists and historians alike. Image by Nadia Shira Cohen. Romania, 2011.

There are only four people sitting in the pews of the old Unitarian church in Rosia Montana, but the voice coming from the pulpit is thunderous and full of passion.

"And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?"

Arpad Pallfy, the Unitarian priest of Rosia Montana, a picturesque village in Transylvania, in western Romania, is one of the most fearless opponents of the Rosia Montana Gold Corp., a mining company that plans to open the biggest open-pit gold mine in Europe. Every Sunday he preaches to his dwindling congregation, in both allegory and plain words, about the need to stand up and oppose the impending destruction of the village and the surrounding mountains.

"I will not leave until the last person leaves," he says.

For more than a decade Rosia Montana Gold Corp., 80 percent owned by the Canadian company Gabriel Resources and the rest by the Romanian state, has been trying to jump-start its colossal mining operation, trying to take advantage of gold's skyrocketing price, now nearly $1,900 an ounce (up from just $250 an ounce in 2001). But the process has been mired in controversy and fierce opposition.

The saving of Rosia Montana has become the cause celebre of Romanian civil society — in fact, many believe that it has helped create civil society in Romania, a country where decades of brutal communist dictatorship followed by a rapacious free-market economy have sowed skepticism and apathy among the population.

"Nature is the most precious thing left in Romania. That's why people are fighting so hard against the mining project. It's a patriotic impulse," said Luminita Dejeu, a graphic artist who created the logo of the opposition campaign: a green mountain range mirrored in a red pool of toxic waste.

According to polls, the majority of Romanians disapprove of the project.

Environmental concerns are not the only ones driving the opposition. The village of Rosia Montana is one of the oldest mining sites in the world, where precious metals have been extracted underground for almost 2,000 years. The grandeur of the Roman Empire was bankrolled with local gold, and some of the original tunnels still exist, offering invaluable treasures to archaeologists and historians alike.

But the mining project, if realized, would inevitably destroy most of those tunnels, both ancient and modern. One open pit, started under the communist regime in the 1970s and abandoned in 2006, when the state mining company went bankrupt, already has damaged some of the archaeological sites. The irony is that modern industrial mining threatens to obliterate the rich history of mining here.

"We are losing unique archaeological monuments," says Ioan Piso, head of the National Museum of Transylvanian History and one of the most vociferous critics of the project. "I'm not against mining in general, my father was a mining engineer, but the destruction of Rosia Montana is a crime from all points of view. These monuments belong to the whole of Romania and the whole of Europe."

Aside from the tunnels, hundreds of buildings in Rosia Montana are listed as historic monuments, with several churches and houses of immense architectural significance, according to experts. The Unitarian church, for example, was built in 1796 and enjoys a protected status.

A special committee from the International Council on Monuments and Sites has recently recommended Rosia Montana for inclusion on Romania's tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Thousands of local and international scholars as well as a number of ecclesiastical and professional institutions have spoken out in support of the region's conservation.

"The initiative should be abandoned before producing disastrous, irremediable consequences," the Romanian Academy, the country's highest independent scientific body, wrote in an official statement as early as 2003, a view reaffirmed again this year by its president, Ionel Haiduc.

To assuage some of the concerns and burnish its public image, the Rosia Montana Gold Corp. has launched an extensive array of environmental, community and patrimony programs, along with a barrage of expensive TV and print advertising. Its website uses green buzz words like "environmental awareness," "corporate social responsibility" and "sustainable development."

Casting itself as the savior of an underdeveloped and economically depressed region, the gold company claims it will bring $1.8 billion in direct benefits to the Romanian coffers, and $2.2 billion from indirect services, while employing up to 800 people.

The company has pledged to use only the safest cyanide technologies for gold leaching, and to build treatment plants for the ages-old acid rock drainage in the area, as well as to clean up all pollution resulting from future operations, including the recultivation of the mining pits.

It addition, it already has invested more than $10 million in its own archaeological program and small mining museum, with another $35 million still to come. One Roman mining tunnel is slated for conservation and the main historic buildings in the downtown area would be preserved on a protected patch of land within the project footprint.

"We are going to save the patrimony of Rosia Montana, not destroy it," says Dragos Tanase, the general manager of Rosia Montana Gold Corp., pointing out that the company-sponsored archaeological program has unearthed a few edifices dating from Roman times, when the region was better known as Alburnus Maior.

Few people are willing to believe his paradoxical words. "It's true we would have known less about Alburnus Maior without the investments of the company," concedes Piso, "but the company's price is the destruction of Alburnus Maior as a whole."

Despite the company's promises and concessions, it is impossible to conceal the enormous damage that would result if the project goes ahead. The mining plan envisions the creation of four giant pits, which would generate, over a lifetime of 16 years, more than 200 million tons of waste rock. A nearby bucolic valley would be transformed into a tailings management facility where up to 250 million tons of cyanide-laced waste would be stored behind a 590-foot-tall dam.

By far the greatest controversy, however, involves the buying up of properties and the relocation of local residents. In order to begin, the gold company needs to acquire 100 percent of all land within the proposed industrial zone.

Right now, it owns about 60 percent, a purchase rate helped by the region's high rates of poverty and unemployment, which help persuade residents to sell and move to other cities.

The company even has sponsored exhumations and reburials of dead relatives. The bells of the church, locals joke, ring either when somebody dies or is raised from the dead.

Some have accused the company of deliberately stifling the few remaining business opportunities in the area and of gradually dismantling public services in order to present itself as the only possible solution to the region's ever worsening economic woes.

"It's like attacking somebody and then pretending to come to his help," said Andrei Gruber, 26, the proprietor of the only official hostel in the village.

Some have vowed to stick it out to the bitter end. "You can give me the entire world, but I will not leave," says Zeno Cornea, a retired topographer from Rosia Montana who has spent his whole life in the mining industry, but has now crossed to the other side. "There are three sacred things in life: the house, the church and the cemetery."

Eugen David, 46, a local farmer and president of Alburnus Maior, a non-profit that opposes the mining development, also plans to stay.

"As long as I have my land," he says, "I am the owner of this world. And I am very strong. And I can't be manipulated. The land gives me the power and strength to rely on myself."

Organizations like David's have proposed various alternatives to industrial mining, such as cultural and environmental tourism, small-scale farming, artisanal mining, and the development of traditional crafts. A potential inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list would further boost the appeal of the region, especially if the site is managed well.

Others look at such alternatives with skepticism.

"UNESCO World Heritage cannot ensure the resources required for conservation and cannot create new jobs," the mayor of Rosia Montana, Eugen Furdui, wrote in an official statement.

His view is shared by Vadan Marcel, a 46-year-old geologist wearing the company's neat dark-green uniform and yellow hardhat. Working on a low-paying, temporary contract, he can't afford to lose his job. "Without mining in Rosia Montana, we have nothing to do. We can't all grow mushrooms."

In such a polarized environment, it is very difficult to imagine that the case of Rosia Montana would be resolved anytime soon. Neither side is willing to give up and no compromise seems possible.

Gruber, the proprietor of the hostel, whose family used to be one of the most famous and richest mining families in the region before the communists took everything in 1948, ruefully looks back at the past.

"Gold never brought us happiness," he says. "The Romans conquered this land for the gold. The Austro-Hungarians came here for the gold. Then the communists. And now this company. Before they were called invaders, now they are called investors. This is evolution, I guess."

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