This past Sunday, thousands of Romanians formed a human chain around the Romanian Parliament to protest against plans by a Canadian firm to set up Europe’s biggest open-cast gold mine.
These street protests against the Rosia Montana gold mining project have been taking place every weekend in September. They show no signs of subsiding. For a good reason: there has been a growing sense that this movement is already bigger than Rosia Montana itself. Political commentators have described the growing movement as one of the largest anti-environmental protests in post-Communist Europe.
The gold mining project has been valued at $7.5 billion (based on a 2007 study that used an average price of $900 per ounce of gold). It is estimated that the Romanian government will receive about 75 percent of the benefits in taxes, royalties, dividends and jobs according to a report from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Gold currently trades around $1,390 per ounce.
The major political actors in Romania believe that the protests against the mining project will keep growing “until something gives and our demands are recognized.” They contend that the mine’s liberal use of cyanide and heavy metals such as mercury will create a major environmental risk. Protesters also accuse authorities of trying to sell off Romania’s assets too cheaply.
Romania’s political leaders have been trying to quell the mobilisation against the mining project, one of the hugest rallies in Europe since the early 1990′s. Political parties have suggested that the mining project will be voted down. If the politicians decide to kill the project, the Canadian company, Gabriel Resources, majority owner of the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, threatens to sue the Romanian state. Why? The Canadian company has been awaiting a green light for 14-15 years.
The scale of the protests reflects the size of the environmental risks involved
What’s at issue are the rights to mine Europe’s largest gold deposit, located under the ancient mountain town of Rosia Montana in Transylvania. Rosia Montana in the Carpathian Mountains is the site of Roman-era gold works where archaeological conservation works were being carried out.
Gabriel Resources owns 80 percent of the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation. It acquired a mining license in 1999 but has been waiting ever since for a crucial permit from the government’s environment ministry. The company promises 900 jobs during the 16-year extraction period and economic benefits, if the mining exploration is approved.
The plan by Bucharest government officials to push through approval for the large-scale mining threatens to completely eliminate this entire town in northern Romania. The project will lead to the destruction of four mountains, three villages and require hundreds of families to be relocated. It would mean a violation by the Romanian government against its own citizens.
Moreover, if plans by Canada’s Gabriel Resources do go ahead, protesters are worried about its impact on the environment. To collect the ore, the entire mountain would need to be blown up, bit by bit. The rock would then be taken to a mining plant to be leached with cyanide and separated into gold on one side, cyanide and tailings on the other.
The mine project would use cyanide to extract 314 tons of gold and 1,500 ton of silver. Cyanide will have to be poured into the Rosia Montana town at a rate of 40 tons per day. ”That amount is more than 130 times the amount used in the Romanian Baie Mare gold mine at the time of the catastrophic cyanide spill in 2000, Europe’s worst environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl,” according to an online article in Spiegel.
What will be left behind? Open craters, moon-like terrain and cyanide waste. The Rosia Montana gold mine would use as much as 12,000 tons of cyanide annually over an exploration period of up to 16 years, according to Gabriel Resources. The cyanide would be stored in a 300-hectare pond in the Corna Valley in northern Romania, behind a dam 185-meters high.
The Canadian company argues that the technology is safe. Gabriel Resources and its subsidiary the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation have stressed that cyanide is so heavily regulated in the European Union that its toxicity is effectively regulated out of the picture. Some level of cyanide has been deemed to be acceptable. In 2010, the European Commission declined to impose an EU-wide ban on cyanide because it deemed the existing regulatory regime to be sufficient.
EU requirements on cyanide are stringent. They came about partly as a direct result of the 2000 Baia Mare cyanide spill, one of the worst ecological disasters since Chernobyl. Baia Mare is a village also in Romania. Since that disaster, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Turkey have banned cyanide in gold extraction.
As the video report below shows, the 2000 cyanide spill continues to haunt the Romanian citizens of Baia Mare to this day.
Local politics are even more complex
Not everyone agrees with the “Save the Rosia Montana” protesters. Hundreds of people have gathered in Rosia Montana to support the mine’s development, arguing that the plan would create jobs and alleviate widespread poverty in the area. Thirty three workers had blockaded themselves into the Rosia Montana site 300 meters below ground; they threatened to go on hunger strike over fears that jobs would be lost if plans by Gabriel Resources’s plans for an open-cast gold mine did not go ahead.
So far, Romanian government officials have responded as they always do: they turn to where the wind blows. President Traian Basescu was once an avid supporter of the mine. After the protests, however, Basescu came out condemning it on environmental grounds. Given that the majority of Romanians are now opposed to it, Prime Minister Victor Ponta also announced an emergency procedure that would, he claimed, stop the project once and for all.
Gabriel Resources executives are livid. Since the protests broke out, many of its shareholders have sold off their shares, causing the company’s stock price to crash. As the company’s shares plummet, the company has now threatened to sue the Romanian government. Company executives claim that if members of the Romanian parliament vote against the mining project, they will “commence litigation for multiple breaches of international investment treaties for up to $4 billion.”
Ponta abandoned his emergency procedure. He has now set up a special parliamentary committee to debate the proposed mining project and to issue a report by October 20. A vote in both chambers of the Romanian parliament will follow.
An environmental movement more than 18 years in the making
In September 1995, the Romanian government (under a different administration) signed a secret agreement with the Gabriel Resources, giving it the right to mine Rosia Montana. For more than 18 years since, the terms of that secret agreement have not been revealed, and the Romanian government has swung back and forth on the issue over the years, never resolving it completely.
“We still don’t know the exact nature of the original contract signed between the government and Gabriel (Resources),” says Ramona Duminicioiu in a recent Spiegel interview. “But it is clear that the vast majority of Romanians oppose the mine. If the project goes ahead, it must be stronger than democracy.”
An activist in the Save Rosia Montana movement for more than a decade, Duminicioiu has said that the Romanian public has been left in the dark. That the rights and obligations of the state in the 1999 contract have not been disclosed to the public. That the details of the exploration rights licensed to the Canadian company are also not known to the public.
Only now, with these massive protests raging in Bucharest, has the Romanian public awaken to the scale of Rosia Montana problem. The Save Rosia Montana campaign is now regarded as the largest civic movement in Romania since the 1989 revolution.
“The lack of transparency is accentuated by the national media’s indifference towards any concerns regarding the project,” argues media researcher Oana Romocea in a Huffington Post commentary. “It continues to deny air time to the opponents of the mining project, but instead abounds with Gabriel Resources’ publicity which misinforms the Romanian population.”
Only three things are clear
First, the largest group of Romanian protesters is determined to continue the demonstrations against the mining project, until the law is voted down and cyanide is completely banned from mining in Romania.
Second, the rich mineral resources of this once-communist country have been exploited since Roman times or before. According to one industry report, Romania has over 31,000,000 ounces of gold in its earth. To this day, Romania is literally sitting on an amazing mother-lode of gold. Only these protests have kept Romanian’s gold from being exploited by the Canadians.
Third, if the Ponta government approves the Canadian firm’s gold mine exploration, Romanian citizens can rightly fear the advent of a new environmental catastrophe. In light of the 2000 Baia Mare cyanide spill, one of Europe’s worst chemical disasters, the Rosia Montana mine is an ecological time bomb waiting to explode.