For decades, Nazi and Communist regimes ruled Romania, kept her people impoverished and exploited her resources – tearing vast mineral wealth from her mountains, with little regard for worker safety, people’s health or the environment. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Romania eagerly embraced a more hopeful future and embarked on a course to join the European Union.
Life has improved for many, especially in cities like Bucharest. But Romania remains one of the EU’s poorest nations, and valleys that once echoed with the shouts of workers and roar of heavy equipment are now silent. Over 300,000 miners are jobless. Their villages have descended into squalor, misery and despondency that have no historic parallel.
Rosia Montana is one such place. This Transylvanian town hosts a massive open-pit mine, enormous waste dumps and, beneath them, hundreds of tunnels. The legacy of 2000 years of mining – the most damaging of which occurred under Ceaucescu – they leach toxic chemicals into local streams that now are red-orange from cadmium and contain 110 times the EU’s legal limit of zinc, 64 times its iron limit, and three times the limit for arsenic, the most dangerous chemical on the US government’s toxic substances list.
Homes and buildings are crumbling, two-thirds of them lack indoor toilets and running water, and 70% of the workers are unemployed. Families survive on wild berries, subsistence farming in rocky, acidic soil, welfare, and often less than US$2 a day. Few own a car. Frigid winters are warmed only by wood stoves. Malnutrition and ill health are constant problems. The dentist serves as the area’s only doctor.
Unlike most former mining towns, however, Rosia has one last chance. Gabriel Resources wants to reopen the mine, to tease out nearly 2,000 tons of gold and silver that the antiquated methods of bygone eras could not extract.
In the process, the Canadian company would spend millions to erase the horrific environmental legacy, restore the land to forests, pastures and grasslands, and leave the alpine waters sparkling. All at no cost to the Romanian government, which cannot afford to clean up the mess itself.
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