For the past seven weeks, Romanians have been leading one of the largest environmental protest movements in the world. Around 200,000 Romanians have taken to the streets in cities across Romania and the world to protest against the government’s recent approval of draft legislation for an open-pit cyanide-based mining project at Rosia Montana. According to Gabriel Resources Ltd., the Canadian company behind the scheme, the plan for the project is to dig up an estimated 314 tonnes of gold squirrelled away in Rosia Montana, using 40 tonnes of cyanide per day.
Despite the protests, the European Commission (EC) did not make a statement until only recently. The Commission’s response was prompted when Commissioner Janez Potocnik received a letter soliciting information on the EC’s intended actions regarding Romania’s moves to accelerate the authorization of the mining project, which would use environmentally dangerous cyanide leaching technology.
But a spokesperson representing the Commission emphasized that it was not concerned with the Rosia Montana project because it so far does not breach any EU environmental regulations. The spokesperson added that, as long as the Canadian company obtains its needed licenses, the project would be fine.
The Commission is wrong. The project goes against two fundamental principles of the Lisbon Treaty: the sustainable development principle and the precautionary principle. Moreover, the project would breach several EU environmental Directives, such as Directive on the management of waste from extractive industry and the Water Framework Directive.
The European Commission should intervene for two reasons
For one, the Rosia Montana initiative breaches the Lisbon precautionary principle, which states that policy cannot harm the public or environment. According to the head of the Romanian Geological Institute, the soil at Rosia Montana could not support the post-mining decantation basin that the company intends to create, as cyanide would easily leak into groundwater. Moreover, the Institute mentioned that it would be unprecedented to have a decantation basin of 363 hectares of cyanide-filled waste, which means that the potential for a spill is all the more enormous.
Second, the project also runs afoul of the sustainable development principle. Gabriel Resources would obtain 80 percent of the profits, with the rest going to the Romanian government. This is too little for the East European country. Rosia Montana is the largest known gold deposit in Europe and the third largest in the world. Its value is estimated to be around at around $20.8 billion, representing a huge possible endowment for Romania – if managed properly. As the Romanian Academy, an academic forum, stressed, the mining project is ‘not a solution for sustainable development and does not solve the economic and social problems in the region’. While the company has promised to create 3,600 jobs, CNS Cartel ALFA, a trade union, puts the number at around 1,700 jobs. It reckons employment will fall to a paltry 300 after 8 years. Finally, the Canadian company intends to extract the gold over 16 years, approximately 35 years less that what an initiative of its size would usually take. According to the head of the Romanian Geological Institute, using the standard practice of carbon-in-leach (CIL) cyanidation and pressured oxidation of refractory gold minerals, a practice used in Finland’s Kittila Gold Mine, would mean extending the mining period by at least 33 years, adding more jobs and investment. But even this model would have severe problems.
Years of frustration
All of this comes after previous efforts to attract the attention of the European Parliament on the matter. In 2010 and 2011, Ad Astra, an association of Romanian scientists, and the Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation sent petitions in response to the project’s potential damaging effects on the environment. But the PETI Commission left it up to the Romanian authorities. Nevertheless, it highlighted that the project has to respect several directives, most of which the project breaches.
The first one is Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from an extractive industry, which ironically was adopted after Romania’s 2000 Baia Mare cyanide spill, considered the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl. Yet the Rosia Montana project has never been granted an environmental permit. According to a Romanian Europarliamentarian Monica Macovei, the company’s exploration license has been expired for 12 years, given that according to the Romanian mining law, in order to start any mining activity the company is obliged to obtain an environmental license within 180 days after the exploration license is granted.
The second European directive that would be breached by the project is the Water Framework Directive. The Rosia Montana project needs its tailings pond to be situated on the valley of the Corna River, whose course would have to be deviated. This is nearly impossible according to the director of the Geological Institute. But according to the European Water Framework, deviating the natural course of a river can only be done in the case of ‘projects of public utility’ and of ‘overriding public interest’. Alas, in recently approved draft legislation, the Romanian government declared the Canadian company’s private project to be of public utility and of overriding public interest, which it is not, given that the Romanian Constitution stresses that ‘public interest riches’, including underground resources, are the exclusive object of public property, meaning that they solely belong to the Romanian people.
What should be done?
To begin, the European Commission should revisit its statements regarding the Rosia Montana project. While the EU might be facing a dire economic crisis, allowing ecological disasters to occur in its Member countries is not beneficial and contradicts many of its core principles. The EU also seems to be ignoring the fact that, apart from being the largest gold mine in Europe, Rosia Montana contains extremely important rare minerals, including titanium, germanium and wolfram, whose tremendous global value far surpasses that of gold. At the same time, the precedent of having a unconstitutional law that allows a private foreign company the power to operate with little oversight in a European country is not a precedent to be desired. Finally, the EU should take into account the fact that significantly lowering the environmental standards in gold mining activities would set a grave precedent in Europe and enable not just the ecological disaster in Romania, but elsewhere in Europe.