Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Battle over gold mine plan that would create giant cyanide lake.

NESTLING amid rocky crags, lines of beech trees and chimney smoke rising from rustic cottages, Rosia Montana looks the very image of rural calm in the Transylvanian alps. In fact, this village has become a battleground in Europe's biggest single environmental struggle.

For 11 years, conservationists and a Canadian mining giant have been locked in a battle over £5 billion worth of gold sitting in the soil - Europe's biggest gold deposit.

It is a battle that has now reached its climax, with the company, Gabriel Resources, suing the Romanian government in the hope it will finally clear the way for mining to begin.

Gold has been mined at Rosia Montana since Roman times. The remains of their workings honeycomb the crags around the valley. The seams are now exhausted, but gold remains scattered across the valley in the form of dust. Put together, this dust amounts to 330 tonnes of gold and 1,400 tonnes of silver.

But gathering the dust is the problem. The only way to get at the gold is to soak the soil and rock with cyanide. This process, named cyanide leaching, dissolves the gold, but leaves behind a mountain of toxic sludge. About 20 tonnes of sludge are created to get enough gold to make a single ring.

"You can't even imagine how bad it will be, we are talking about the biggest ecological disaster in Europe," says Sorin Jurca, a leading light in the local conservation group, Alburnus Maior. "We are talking about a lake, a cyanide lake."

Gabriel Resources insists safeguards are being added that will see the valley landscaped and the toxic lake covered with a layer of clay. "We've got a solid project," says director Richard Young.

Conservationists disagree. Their movement has grown to embrace 80 organisations, including Greenpeace, the Orthodox church and the government of neighbouring Hungary, which will bear the brunt of any cyanide spill into local rivers.

Opponents and company have been deadlocked. But in September a new, minority government took office in Romania. Conscious of the country's deteriorating image in the West, it suspended consideration of an environmental permit for the mine.

Here is the full article.