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Transylvania Could Become a Barren Toxic Wasteland

The region—which makes up a large chunk of central Romania—is rich in gold, and a bunch of mining companies are keen to lock down their share of the action.
March 14, 2014, 3:00pmUpdated on March 14, 2014, 4:13pm

Mining Watch Romania are mapping out all of Romania's mining projects

Transylvania is a toxic wasteland waiting to happen. The region—which makes up a large chunk of central Romania—is rich in gold, and a bunch of mining companies are keen to lock down their share of the action. Unfortunately, once they get started, their methods of mining aren't exactly ideal, in that the majority use cyanide to extract the precious mineral from the ore that lies underneath the area's towns, villages, and mountains.

Clearly, pumping cyanide into the earth isn't going to do the local ecosystem much good—as proved by the Baia Mare disaster in 2000, when four rivers, including the Danube and Tisa, were contaminated with the poisonous chemical after it leaked from a nearby gold mining site. However, that slip up doesn't seem to have taught anyone any lessons, as mining company Romaltyn Mining now want to do exactly the same thing in exactly the same place.

There are 12 more similar projects in the region awaiting approval by Romanian authorities. A new law that would have given them all the go-ahead wasn't passed last December, but, of course, that's just a mere hindrance. The government—that also want to receive their share of any future mining profits—are now trying to amend the law so that the mines become "public interest projects," claiming that razing villages and pumping toxins into the earth beneath them would somehow benefit the local population.

Mining Watch Romania (MWR) is a network of groups that keeps an eye on the mining companies' plans, and attempts to stir opposition against them. I got in touch with Roxana Pencea—an MWR participant and member of the Save Roșia Montană Campaign (an area that's long been exploited for its mineral reserves)—to find out more about the situation.

A protest against gold mining in Roșia Montană (Photo by Mircea Topoleanu)

VICE: Ștefan Marincea, the former executive of the Romanian Geological Institute, has said that "Romania has the most gold deposits in Europe." That's a good thing, right?
Roxana Pencea: No. Gold extraction is a dirty industry; it ruins the landscape, pollutes the air and the water, corrupts authorities and impoverishes communities. Romania has 68 gold deposits that could be transformed, over the course of a few years, into dead zones, full of craters, tailings ponds [filled with cyanide and heavy metals], sterile slurry dumps and acid leaks. The agreements between the Romanian state and the mining industry are made for the companies' profit—open pit mining wouldn't even be an option if the companies paid the real price. The citizens are left with the risk of pollution, as well as the closing costs.

There are 13 mining projects awaiting approval. What would happen if they all started at once?
In Transylvania, the mining projects are 20 to 30 miles apart, most of them in the counties of Hunedoara, Alba, and Maramureș. The environmental damage is hard to estimate. The lives of the local community and the landscape would be the first things to be affected. Forest areas are cut down, and above-ground constructions are demolished. Huge blocks of stone get blown up with dynamite; the healthy soil that the vegetation needs gets polluted; and the perimeter eventually turns into a desert. The extracted rocks are ground up and turned into a toxic sludge, containing cyanide and heavy metals, which is deposited in tailings ponds. The wind blows and spreads toxic and poisonous vapours all around.

What can be done before these projects become a real issue?
Those responsible for stopping the projects are the people who are directly affected by them. From fishermen, who would end up with lifeless rivers, to the local producers, whose profits would plummet. Nobody wants vegetables, milk, or meat from a polluted area. The rest of us should rise in solidarity with them and keep in mind that the government will pay for these damaging projects with our own money. Instead of investing in schools, hospitals, or highways, they're taking risks on these projects—stuff like public health issues, environmental repair costs, and paying compensation if the mining operation fails.

A banner at a protest last year against the proposed new mining law

The bill for the new mining law, which would allow all these operations to take place, didn't pass in December. But the government is still trying to modify it so it could turn any mining project into a public interest project. What would happen if those regulations were passed?
The human right of private property would become uncertain. You might find that the house you're paying a mortgage for is on top of an ore deposit. That could result in you having your house taken away by a private company in a matter of weeks. And if you were unsatisfied with the compensations, you'd have to file a lawsuit against the company.

But not all the projects overlap with inhabited areas.
Indeed. And not all areas are lucky enough to be near a mountain like the Cârnic Mountain, which more than 1,000 archaeologists worldwide are fighting to save. It could only be destroyed if there was an exception made to the cultural heritage preservation law. But this doesn't mean that open-pit cyanide mining is an acceptable practice in places where there's no heritage to preserve. At Rovina [in Hunedoara county], there were never any mining projects, but a gold exploitation is being planned that would be the size of the Roșia Montană operation—approximately 400 hectares for the mine itself, and 300 more for the cyanide-filled tailing pools.

Mining Watch suspects the National Agency for Mineral Resources (ANMR) of hiding “very serious fraud.” Why's that?
The ANMR gives the companies the right to explore, exploit, and lease ore deposits. But these rights are “sold” in an un-transparent manner. The explanation they give is that underground resources are a national security issue. This is how we found companies that drill without construction permits, but are able to get environmental permits by the dozen. This kind of decision affects tens of communities.

Over the past 15 years, ANMR gave over 120 permits and mining licenses. But the ANMR website isn't functional, and their employees' attitude is obtuse, so the information about permit holders is a well-kept secret. We only know details of the mining operators that are running exploration activities, like Samax Baia Mare in Rovina, Romaltyn Mining in Baia Mare, and Eldorado Gold in Deva, Certej and Brad. And, of course, about Gabriel Resources in Roșia Montană.

Who's being held accountable?
Unfortunately, the officials aren't personally held accountable for breaking institutional transparency laws. And the institutions, when found guilty for not sharing public information, are only fined about 200 dollars. There should be a policy that demands transparency with official decisions, and I hope we'll be able to establish this before a big part of Transylvania turns into some nightmarish apocalyptic scenario.

Tons of fish from the Săsar, Lăpuș, Someș, Tisa, and Danube rivers died after the 2000 cyanide spill in Baia-Mare.

Romaltyn Mining want to start cyanide mining in Baia Mare again. The cyanide spill there in 2000 became known as "the second Chernobyl." Is the new project basically just the same thing again?
Yes, it's a crude copy-paste of the same operation. But we doubt the environmental authorities learned anything from that incident. That incident was responsible for a record-breaking cyanide leak, although the company that ran the project boasted about using the world's safest technology. The assumption that the polluter will be held responsible in an accident is an illusion. If a company admits to being responsible for leaks, spills, or mining accidents, it's not allowed to make decisions that would fix the problem. Instead, the Romanian government call all the shots. The incident at Baia Mare showed that the authorities were incapable of managing the project or regulating the company's activity.

How could the new cyanide gold exploitation project in Baia Mare end up being approved?
It took five years to repopulate the rivers, and 10 years for all the plants and wildlife to be restored there. The new project has been trying to get approval since 2006. It's absurd how they want to set up such a dangerous project in the middle of a city. The processing plant is built in an inhabited area, and the pipes transporting the waste water would cross the city of Baia Mare over a distance of 14 km. The tailings pond is only 2.8 km from the city, and the dam surrounding it is supposed to be upgraded every time the tailings pile up.

"The well-being of citizens" and "investments in the area" are generally the mining companies' main justifications for starting these projects. What do you think of their reasoning?
It's nonsense. Really, the community gets forcefully displaced and replaced by minimally qualified workers for a small period of time. Modern mining has nothing to do with the idyllic image of the underground miner. Now, there's only chemical processing on inconceivably large areas, which leak toxic substances into the earth, putting them in contact with the groundwater. The cyanide mining industry presents all the newest technologies as faultless, so the authorities rarely question this “minimal risk” and the real risks are never properly evaluated. There are no preventative measures or suitable financial guarantees in place; it's just a matter of time until an accident happens.