A photo taken by Mining Watch Romania, apparently showing bulldozers in Certejul de Sus clearing the land.
The dust hardly settled after last year’s massive protests against a cyanide-based gold mine at Rosia Montana in Romania. But most Romanians are just learning these days that, while the Rosia Montana battle was being fought out on the streets of Romania, another very similar cyanide-based gold project was being pushed through.
Over the past days, environmentalists from Mining Watch Romania have been ringing alarm bells that works have begun at the planned gold and silver mine in Certejul de Sus, Hunedoara County, despite the constructor Deva Gold not having all the necessary permits to begin exploitation.
Located in the Apuseni Mountains just like Rosia Montana, Certejul de Sus also belongs to a historical mining region where gold has been exploited for a couple of centuries, at first by individuals and then by communist state companies.
Certej is the place of one of the most serious communist era industrial accidents. In 1971, a tailing dam containing cyanide residue from the gold exploitation at Certej spilled over killing 89 people. The accident was kept a secret by communist authorities but people in the region know about it and understand the risks of cyanide.
The new gold and silver mining project is supposed to cover about 450 hectares of land, out of which 187 hectares are forests. Part of the territory that will be covered by the mining operation is included in a Natura 2000 protected site. Most of the precious metals would be exploited over the next 16 years, during which over 26,000 tonnes of cyanide would be used, whose residue would be left locally.
One of the main arguments used by proponents of the project is that it would create jobs in an area where many are still unemployed after the closure of the old mines. Some 100-200 jobs are expected to be created locally, according to statements by Deva Gold. Certejul de Sus has a population of over 3,000.
Not only are the parameters of the project similar to Rosia Montana, so is the level of controversy around it. And this is no surprise, since both projects are the brain children of the same people.
Deva Gold was created in 2000 with an ownership of 20 percent by the state company Minvest Deva and 80 percent by European Goldfields. European Goldfields in its turn was founded in the same year, 2000, when Gabriel Resources, run by infamous Romanian businessman Frank Timis, was split in two, Gabriel Resources Ltd. which was to build the gold mine at Rosia Montana and European Goldfields, to be in charge of Certej. European Goldfields has since been bought by Canadian Eldorado Gold, which has mining operations worldwide, including three controversial gold projects in Greece.
Importantly, Deva Gold obtained the rights to these gold and silver deposits in a dubious manner (and according to a pattern also seen at Rosia Montana). The rights to the old mines were simply given by the national authority in charge of mining to Minvest, which meant that when Minvest merged with European Goldfields, the now mostly private-owned company Deva Gold de facto got the rights without any public procurement procedure. Nicolae Stanca, the president of Deva Gold today, was a manager of the state mining company in the 1990s when the passing of the licence happened, and he publicly admitted that he had had access to information about where there are deposits in Romania which are still worth exploiting.
The controversy over Certej is not only historical, however, and questions about the legality of the project as planned by Deva Gold continue into today.
According to the information made public by Mining Watch Romania, the main NGO monitoring mining in the country, Deva Gold was this month (October) already doing works at the mine in Certejul de Sus despite lacking the authorization needed for construction. Present on the ground in the beginning of October, members of the NGO witnessed bulldozers and excavators preparing terrain for mining operations; they saw heavy vehicles loaded with equipment transit the area; finally, they saw that a storage shed and another structure are under construction in Certejul de Sus.
Together with evidence that works were taking place, the NGO also published an official letter from the Certejul de Sus municipality which says that “no authorisation for construction has been issued to Deva Gold on October 2 and in general”. (The reference to the date of October 2 is because the mayor of Certejul de Sus, Petru Cimpian, had told local media that a construction authorisation exists dated October 2).
Additionally, Mining Watch has challenged the environmental permit obtained by Deva Gold in court, saying it has many gaps, including that it is not clear who would pay in case of a cyanide spill or other severe accident. The NGO also says that no permit has been yet obtained to clear the 187 hectares of forest, as well as that no permit has been obtained to mine in an area that has archeological value. These are very similar gaps to the ones identified at the Rosia Montana project, and which have kept Gabriel Resources, the project promoter there, and environmentalists entangled in court battles for more than a decade.
I have spoken to both Nicolae Stanca, the president of Deva Gold, and to mayor Petru Cimpian to ask what kind of works is Deva Gold doing already on the ground and on the basis of what kind of permits.
Nicolae Stanca said that the only works that have been done are the construction of a hall to deposit mining materials (the storage shed described by environmentalists), for which the company has a construction permit (he has sent this permit to me). Yet he denied that the company does any work on the mining perimeter, which seems to be contradicted by some of the photo and video material produced by Mining Watch showing bulldozers and other large machines clearing land. Stanca said that his company cannot and will not begin any work on the mining perimeter itself until they get a permit to clear the 187 hectares of forest.
Mayor Cimpian largely supported the claims made by Nicolae Stanca, contradicting the document issued by his own institution which said no construction permit had been issued for Deva Gold. Cimpian listed three different construction permits that his institution had issued this year to Deva Gold (the one for the deposit sent to me by Nicolae Stanca and two others), but said that in order to see them one would have to go to the town hall in Certejul de Sus because these are large documents with many stamps which cannot be easily scanned. He added that the official letter denying any construction permit had been issued was a mistake of a new employee, who had been hired precisely on the date of 2 October and had no idea of what had happened before in the institution.
While it is good that both the president of the company and the mayor are prepared to present some documentation to the media when asked (it is not always the case in Romania), there are still serious gaps in the explanations that the two provide. For one, they both deny that any work takes place apart of the construction of a deposit, despite other works being documented by the NGO. For another, it is not clear if an actual construction permit for the mining perimeter exists, as the document described by the mayor was rather a “technical document” not an authorisation. If a construction permit exists for the mining perimeter, why is it not being made public by the municipality and the company? Finally, the mayor’s explanation for the official letter sent previously by his institution (blaming a recently hired employee) is shaky.
There are too many dates flying around about construction permits in the statements from this official, leaving too much room for doubt, especially as nothing has been published on the website of the institution.
Both the mayor and the Deva Gold president still have homework to do, in my opinion. And certainly environmental groups in Romania will make sure to highlight to relevant courts any gaps in the documentation or in the official statements. Many of the environmentalists working on Certej have a lot of experience from the Rosia Montana campaign, so they will not get easily confused.
But, behind the legal details, what is striking for me as a citizen of Romania in this case, is the mere fact of how this project has been pushed through without a serious public debate in Romania, just as so many across the country were expressing their complete opposition to the twin project at Rosia Montana.
Given that Rosia Monatana sparked some of the biggest country-wide protests in post-socialist Romania, it would be hard for anyone to claim that the Certej project would be welcomed by Romanians for its job creating potential. As in the Rosia Montana case, the number of jobs created and taxes promised to the state coffers compare weakly to the potential damages produced by the project.
The local population too, despite needing more economic opportunities, is not fully behind a new mining project. While some may believe in the promise of jobs, others are too afraid of the risks posed by cyanide. In 2008, villagers in Voia, where one of the tailing dams for the Certej new mine was supposed to be located, completely rejected hosting the dam during public consultations. Mayor Cimpian stepped in at the time, saying that his own locality, Certejul de Sus, could host the tailings dam.
The Rosia Montana project has been put on hold, still lacking all the permits, but it is not totally out of the picture. Over the past year, the Romanian parliament has attempted to pass a mining law that would automatically give all the needed permits to mining projects deemed to be of national interest. Rosia Montana and Certej would be on the list. The draft law was rejected because of public outrage.
Despite of this, Certej project promoters and their allies among the political class are still hoping they can pull off another project. And certainly they are able to make advances. Yet what they should keep in mind is that Romanian society has changed significantly over the past years. Environmental NGOs have really learnt how to do their job and they have Rosia Montana as a pattern of action.
Since the Rosia Montana protests, a whole network of people are being informed via social media about any minute development with these mining projects. A group of independent journalists are ready to publish whenever abuses around mining projects appear to happen. And people may be even ready to protest again.