Gold mine plans divide 1 Transylvanian town

August 21, 2011 - 11:25 AM
Romania Transylvanian Gold

In this photo taken Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011, a woman walks past an old building in the Transylvanian mining city of Rosia Montana, Romania. With the precious metal at an all-time high, a Canadian company is eager to start blasting out mountains and demolishing parts of this ancient town to build an open-cast mine where 300 tons of gold and 1,600 tons of silver are buried. The plan, which would use cyanide in the extraction process, faces fierce opposition from ecologists and many locals who want to preserve the region's unique heritage. (AP Photo/Nicolae Dumitrache)

ROSIA MONTANA, Romania (AP) — This is fairy tale land and there's even a pot of gold buried beneath it.

But not everyone's happy.

With the precious metal at an all-time high, a Canadian company is eager to start blasting out mountains and demolishing parts of the ancient Romanian town of Rosia Montana to build an open-cast mine where 300 tons of gold and 1,600 tons of silver are buried.

The plan, which would use cyanide in the extraction process, faces fierce opposition from ecologists and many locals who want to preserve the region's unique heritage.

Transylvania, best known as the home of the Dracula legend, is a land of majestic mountains, never-ending forests, and meadows dotted with cones of hay, horse-drawn carts and medieval churches — scenes straight out of Grimms' fairy tales.

Supporters of this rural paradise are battling to preserve an ancient way of life, even as Romania's economy lingers in the doldrums.

But the lures of gold and cash-generating asphalt are reeling in hungry developers to a region beloved — among others — by Britain's Prince Charles, who hails Transylvania as a "national treasure" and Romania's "best export."

Canada's Rosia Montana Gold Corp., set up by a consortium of investors specifically to exploit the gold, says it will be careful to preserve the environment, and is committed to paying villagers compensation and investing in the restoration of historical monuments, including Roman galleries.

"The worst thing that could happen would be that one of the biggest opportunities that would give (locals) a chance for the future would be not to go ahead," said Catalin Hosu, the company's regional communications manager.

It says it has invested $400 million in the mine, in which the Romanian state has a 20 percent stake. The operation is estimated to create more than 2,000 jobs while the mine is built and keep about 150 people employed once it is running.

The town of about 4,000 has about 80 percent unemployment, although some residents, technically jobless, live off proceeds from small farms, while many are retirees.

Indrei Ratiu, a British-Romanian co-founder of Pro-Patrimonium, Romania's national heritage society, says juggling past and future is the key to Transylvania's prosperity.

"You have to get the balance right between conservation and development," he says in an interview from Petresti village, his family's ancestral home.

But he says the gold mine project goes too far.

"I think the shareholders of Rosia Montana all over the world have no idea what is happening here and I'd like to inform them," he said. Like others he believes less invasive mining methods combined with tourism is the best way forward.

Transylvania is also under threat further north after Romanian authorities granted a permit for a controversial highway that could destroy one of Europe's last areas of intact forest outside Russia and Finland, according to the World Wildlife Fund Danube Carpathian Program.

In Rosia Montana, tensions run high between supporters and opponents of the proposed gold mine.

Silviu Aida, a 40-year-old mechanic working for Gold Corp., as the company is known, sees the open-cast mine as a boon. The project will bring "many benefits, firstly jobs and it benefits the Romanian state ... will take it out of poverty."

Ileana Bordeianu, of the Pro-Dreptate mining union, which is funded by Gold Corp., says that without mining the future of Rosia Montana — Red Mountain in English — is bleak.

"It's what we have been doing for 2,000 years," she said, dismissing dangers of a cyanide spill and evoking ancient traditions of gold mining in the area.

However, the use of cyanide is sending jitters beyond Romania's borders.

Romania had one of the worst cyanide spills in 2000 when an estimated 100 tons of the lethal substance spilled from Romania into Hungary's Tisza River and the Danube, killing large numbers of fish in Hungary and Serbia in what was considered one of the worst environmental disasters of recent times.

Hungarian environment state secretary Zoltan Illes wrote to Romanian Environment Minister Laszlo Borbely this week telling him Hungary did not want the mine on its border with Romania because of the cyanide used in the extraction process.

Romania's President Traian Basescu dismissed Hungary's position on Wednesday, saying Romania was "a sovereign state" and his country needed the business, with gold prices soaring.

"I support the project like I support any kind of industrial development," he said Wednesday. "What country sits on a gold mine without seeking to exploit it?"

News of Hungary's position was not reported in the Romanian media which is heavily reliant on advertising from the mining company.

Some parts of the town will be blitzed, as will mountain faces, but the company says it's trying to cooperate with the community, and has already made dozens of modifications to its original project.

Douglas Mcfarlane, a British resident of Transylvania and editor of the Romanian Environmentalist News, is skeptical.

"Once the mining company gets what is wants, nobody will be able to stop them. They will do what they want here," he said during an annual Hay Festival.

Father Arpad Palfi, a Hungarian priest at the Unitarian Church, is the chaplain of the town's 18th-century church whose damp, peeling walls are sorely in need of repair. He is one of the few villagers to reject the Canadian company's compensation offer.

It was a substantial sum: tens of thousands of euros (dollars) to repair his 18th century church and financial aid for his family.

"They can't buy me. I am independent," he said speaking after the Sunday service. "I have no price."