Comment: Romania’s Rosia Montana – the disparities

I recently found an essay of mine on U.S foreign policy entitled “The Disparities on Vietnam”. The ‘disparities’ referred to events leading up to intervention and the eventual withdrawal from Vietnam as presented by the US State Department on one hand, and the authors of Rise to Globalism on the other. As part of his comments, the professor wrote this at the end:

“There may be only One Truth out there somewhere, but humans being partial, having limited sensory arrays and all that, I suspect that the closest we’ll get to sneaking up on said truth consists in comparing versions with a will to cancelling out the nonsense and synthesizing what remains, rather than a Best Version Takes All sort-of basis. But then, you do the cancellation thing, you do it with logic and do it beautifully…If it’s a tad grim, so is the reality it depicts.”

I can’t promise it won’t be grim, but this is my take on the truth about Rosia Montana. My only goal is to focus on what is essential and to cancel out the nonsense.

I first read about Rosia Montana in the Toronto Star back in 2008. I bought the paper just because it was a front page special to a weekend edition. It gave me the impression that it might not be that bad of a deal for Romania, but now that I’ve read it again I see why. How reasonable it all sounds when you can’t see the place and you don’t take into account the scale of destruction that’s going to come. I’m not talking just ecological destruction, I’m talking about the simple fact that four mountaintops are going to be razed and that the resulting scars will be visible from the edge of space. I’m talking about historical artifacts that are going to be destroyed and how a beautiful part of this country is going to become a giant gaping hole.

Fine, so you can look at it as the equivalent of selling a kidney to make ends meet for an impoverished country, but when you’re left with one kidney, there are risks involved.

The chemical process by which the extraction will take place involves the use cyanide to obtain the gold ore. After a purification process of sorts, 200 million tonnes of cyanide will flow into a tailings dam. Imagine a gigantic lake of poison contained by cement and the grace of God. That’s about all that there will be to keep it from shattering or spilling over. A single accident will wreak more ecological devastation than Europe has ever experienced. Baia Mare will look like a joke compared to this. But enough fear-mongering, I’m a fan of reasonable solutions and surely the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) has reasonable and adequate plans for the upkeep of the tailings dam.

It turns out that they do. In their generosity to the Romanian state and people, EUR 150 million have been earmarked for maintenance to the cyanide tailings dam – the largest of its kind thus far. This is in light of the EUR 500 million that the Hungarian government levied as a fine towards Ajka Alumina following the sludge spill in October 2010.

Take into consideration, too, that Canada is currently stuck with the aftermath of cleaning up the toxic arsenic mess at Giant Mine near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. The outcome, mining engineer and consultant, Jack Caldwell says, is “that forever, the Canadian taxpayer will spend well over one billion dollars to keep this “closed” mine under control. If we, as taxpayers had had the choice, would we have ever approved the opening of this mine? I suppose the answer is NO.” The point he makes further on is simple. If the government, over the course of 30 years, has made $18 billion from mining activities, a $1 billion clean-up bill is a fair. But this won’t be the case in Romania for many reasons.

Very few people in Romania are aware of the peripheral issues to this story. The conversation is basically framed around money and employment. How much does Romania get? Many of those in opposition are opposing the mine only because Romania’s not getting enough money out of it. Admittedly, the country’s getting the short end of the stick in the shares department with the split benefiting Gabriel Resources at 75/25 (after the latest round of bargaining) for gold and silver extraction plus 6 percent in profits thereafter. Supposedly, Romania will make about $4 billion out of this project, but who’s to know when the contract is actually classified. When you also consider the cost of maintaining the cyanide lake over the next hundred years, that $4 billion is going to look like petty change.

The Rosia Montana exploration will also destroy a number of heritage sites, among them 18th century churches and millenia old Roman galleries, unique in Europe. Unlike the gold and other minerals that will be extracted, these sites will become ever more valuable with time as sustainable tourist attractions. The gold will be gone, money will be spent, and nothing will remain. The area will be no better than a discarded carcass, picked clean by vultures. It’s ironic, but RMGC has pledged to restore and maintain the historic center of Rosia Montana where a mining museum will stand. I wonder if anybody has ever considered the logic of promoting a desolate crater-like landscape with a mining museum as a tourist attraction. Maybe, many years from now in a world where humanity has come to its senses, it will be a sort of Auschwitz of mining, reminding us all, never again.

And this brings me to the tourism angle, one that saw a major push from Alburnus Maior, the leading NGO in the anti-mining campaign, for the area to be included in the list of UNESCO heritage sites. This would’ve put a stop to mining initiatives once and for all and allowed new development in the area. This part of the story is closely tied in to the employment/job creation issue. The pro-mining side says that the area has no tourism potential and that it’s too much to expect people to create their own sustainability instead of getting a nice mining job with a steady salary. The others point out that there’s been a freeze on starting any new business in Rosia Montana for the last several years. The local town hall refuses any applications for business permits in the area outright. Call it what you want, but it’s no less than an economic embargo. While this is happening, RMGC runs ad campaigns with teary-eyed ladies who are struggling to make ends meet and who just want an honest mining job.

Meanwhile, the UNESCO membership committee, after declaring that they will use all methods at their disposal to get Rosia Montana listed as a UNESCO site (Nov. 2010), dons miners outfits and unanimously decides that “we have a minimum moral responsibility towards those who have already spent hundreds of millions of Euros” (Aug. 2013). Couldn’t make it up if I tried.

I think we’re somewhere at the culmination of this saga. The current government has drafted a law that essentially approves the project and gives RMGC the go-ahead. This law was created by a leftist government who, while in opposition, was staunchly against the project. The law aims to create a special exemption for RMGC to begin mining operations and to bypass many legal hurdles from environmental to zoning concerns that have previously stood in their way and which they had no way of getting around. As a result, thousands of Romanians took to the streets on the 1st of September. I took the below photo of the thousands in Cluj alone.

I made a point of watching the news that night and noticed the following: Three of the channels were showing Syria related news, one was talking heads on business, one about some irrelevant singer, and another about the famous missing case of Elodia – although there was an insert on the side showing live scenes from the protest in Bucharest. I think they were the ones waiting for something ‘good’ to happen. Now, the Syria channels were interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s the first time I saw any attention given to events outside of Romania. World news on Romanian stations rarely get more than an honourable mention, no matter how big. The other reason I found it interesting is because they had basically just plugged in to CNN, BBC, and Euronews feeds respectively, so although these were three Romanian channels, not one was showing original programming at the time.

I’m thinking that a company that spends millions of euros on advertising also has the budget to dictate programming for at least one evening. I guess some of that budget also trickled over to the publications who only mentioned ‘hundreds’ of protesters having gathered throughout the country.

So there it is, a story that may well be entitled, The Curse of Rosia Montana. As much as this country needs money, that gold is not the answer, in my opinion. If you want living proof that resources are not the way to a better economy, just compare the Netherlands and any resource rich African state.

With this cause we’ve seen that there are many Romanians willing to challenge corruption and publicly stand up to corporate greed. We’ve also seen politicians, more blatantly than ever push for a corporate cause without due concern for the law, the future of the country and popular opinion. The next step is to hold every MP who votes YES on the RMGC law accountable in the next election. We have to continue the fight for a future where we call our own shots on foreign investment, our resources and where sound decisions and transparency form the backbone of our legislation.

By Matt Sampalean, guest writer