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Romania Backtracks on Bid to Protect Roman Gold Mine in Transylvania

In a nearly unprecedented move, Romania changed course on a bid to protect a site containing rare archeological artifacts.

The mountains of Transylvania may not be haunted by vampires, but they are full of gold that attracts what some view as predatory attention, in a battle that refuses to die. The bitter fight concerns a foreign company’s proposal to build Europe’s largest open-pit gold mine at a historic site called Roșia Montană.

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In the picturesque Apuseni Mountains, peppered with castles and forests, people have dug gold and silver from the Earth for more than 2,000 years. Roșia Montană contains the world’s largest and most important intact Roman mining tunnels—with rarities like writing tablets and water wheels that once controlled water flow in the galleries, says Andrew Wilson, an Oxford professor of archaeology who co-authored a study of the area’s treasures. Wooded peaks, ancient grave sites, churches, and other archaeological sites round out the community, making it a natural and historic gem.

That makes it all the more surprising that the Romanian government just temporarily pulled its application for the area to be protected as a World Heritage Site.

At the center of the debate is a dispute with the mining company seeking access to the site. Following massive protests that began in earnest in 2013, the Romanian government decided against issuing permits that could’ve allowed Canadian company Gabriel Resources to go forward with the mine, and enacted several legal protections for Roșia Montană. In response, the company took the country to court before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a branch of the World Bank, asking for $4.4 billion in damages. That massive sum is more than two percent of the country’s GDP.

The plan for the open-pit mine proposes using tens of thousands of tons of cyanide to separate gold from crushed rock, creating a large reservoir full of cyanide-laced water. The extensive development would “obliterate most of the area’s unique archaeology,” Wilson says. That would include tunnels—most of which remain unexplored—harboring evidence of early modern mining from the Austro-Hungarian empire, and extensive Communist-era galleries, Wilson adds.

A view of the town center of Roșia Montană, Romania on Nov. 23, 2006. Romania initially lobbied for the area’s designation as a World Heritage Site, before reversing course and asking for that designation to be postponed. Photograph by Cristian Movila, The New York Times via Redux

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