This mountain contains Europe’s biggest gold deposits. With the economic crisis, the price of gold is rocketing and there are plans to open new gold mines in Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, Greece, Northern Ireland and Romania.
The Rosia Montana – Red Mountain – project is among the most controversial, due to the sheer size of the proposed site, the impact on environment, and the archaeological artefacts from Ancient Rome which are found all over this 2000 year-old site.
Team-leader Calin Pal checks the preservation works being carried out in the protected section of the site, criss-crossed by galleries dug by the Romans. He says: “There are at least three generations of miners before me: My great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father. My hope is that the next ten generations will go on mining here too.”
Most locals feel the same way. They want the Canadian investors to start blasting as soon as possible. But opponents fear that the Roman galleries will be destroyed. To ease tensions, the “Gold Corporation” is investing millions of euros to transform at least part of the Roman galleries into an underground museum.
Robert Horvath, an Archaeologist on the site said: “The biggest information is the shape of the gallery: So, when it is geometrical, we know it is Roman. And we find ladders, ancient Roman type. And we find lamp niches and we know that medieval miners did not use the same shape.”
Calin’s men remove the backfill from centuries ago, so that the historic galleries can be mapped. Since 1998, mining in Romania has seen radical changes: 550 mines closed, 80,000 people laid off. The mines from Communist times did not conform with modern regulations, or with EU competition rules.
When the Canadian investors arrived, the miners here had high hopes, but opponents fear that few profits will stay in Romania.
But Catalin Hosu, Communications Manager for Rosia Montana Gold Corporation said: “We do have the biggest gold deposit in the European Union: over 300 tons of gold. We do have here a proposed investment of over two billion dollars. We are talking about benefits for Romania: over 4 billion dollars, that means over 50% of the total estimated revenues. And we are talking about creating thousands of jobs.”
To allay fears about pollution from the cyanide, the company has designed a dam. It will be strong enough to withstand an earthquake of 8 degrees on the Richter scale.
Sorin Jurca, Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation, said: “All this area will be destroyed: The Corna valley over there, where 40 families still live, with two churches and with graveyards. The company wants to build a big dam and a lake covering 600 hectares. If they’ll build the dam, all of this will disappear from the surface of this planet.”
Most of the inhabitants have already agreed to be resettled 70kms away, near Alba Iulia. On the outskirts of the town, the company has spent almost 30 million euros building 125 new houses and a church. Back in the mining region, ex-miners are hoping for new jobs, and a new economic future.
But the Roma families fear they are being sidelined when it comes to hiring – out of the 480 people taken on so far, only 30 are Roma.
Dorinel Pantir, a former Roma miner from Daroaia, said: “Gold Corporation should talk to us directly, not through the local mayor’s people. We should set up a committee to sign a protocol with Gold Corporation so that at least one member of each Roma family will be hired.”
The decline of mining here has led to unemployment rates of around 80% and young people are leaving. But life has always been hard here. In the 50s, during the Communist era gold prospectors had problems too.
Ioan Catalina, a gold prospector, explained: “The Secret Service police shouted: “To the wall, face the wall! And he started waving his pistol around, threatening us. “I could shoot you on the spot! But you have one last chance!” So my grandfather and his friend destroyed their gold milling equipment.”
The red water from the old galleries is so polluted nothing can survive in it. The Gold Corporation has built a water treatment station, a high-tech lab, using nano-filter technology. The says it will clean up not only its own waste water, but also the mess from past centuries.
Catalin Hosu, Communications Manager, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation said: “What you see here is historic pollution. Maybe for hundreds of years. It is very acidic water. But it can be cleaned up. We have a pilot station, proving this. And this is the result: clean and drinkable water.”
But not everyone is impressed. One rancher, an outspoken opponent of the mine, says that the region’s future should be in agriculture and tourism. He calls the water treatment plant a poisoned apple.
Eugen David, President of NGO Alburnus Maior, said: “We do not need to take out 500 million tons of rocks and use hundreds of thousands of tons of cyanide to solve the problems of a small, acidic water spring in Rosia Montana.”
Nationally, polls show strong opposition to the project, but locals from the poor Roma settlement nearby are enthusiastically backing the mining relaunch, desperately hoping for a better standard of living.
But the Roma are desperate. Ileana Tica, a Roma resident in Daroaia said: “Since the mines closed here, us Roma have had problems with the police. Sometimes we have to collect iron, from here and there… And then we get taken to court. But we have to feed our children, buy them a crust of bread.”
Mihai Valentin Pintea, a day labourer in Daroaia said: “Lots of us here work as day labourers. One day we find work, but the next day there’s nothing. We support the mining project, we hope to find work there. I like working – look at my hands. Soon I’ll have a child, I’m 20 years old, I’m married, I have to take care of my family, find something to eat.”
Renovating houses has already provided employment for some people in the region. But when will the gold rush start? There are political doubts. The fall of the centre-right government and the appointment of left wing Prime Minister Victor Ponta, critical of the project, has seen the Gold Company’s share price nosedive.
Dragos Tanase, Director General, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, said: “A lot of people will get a job here. There will be a lot of money going to the State budgets. All these people, they need a decision on the project. Patience is running out, and money is limited. At some point we are going to finish. So, now is the moment that the government needs to take a decision.”
Elections are upcoming. Some observers believe that a decision for or against the multi-billion euro project could be taken shortly afterwards.
So is the goldrush on or off? It’s a decision which will radically people’s future in this part of Europe.