Photographer and activist István Kósa hopes that lessons from Romania’s past guide its future. Six decades ago, Romanians were promised economic prosperity as their country was industrialized, but in most cases, they were left with little more than “collapsed buildings, poisoned soils and disoriented communities," Kosa said.
For this photo essay, Kósa, a Hungarian photographer and former project manager for a Romanian environmental group, traveled throughout the country, capturing the social and economic consequences of its pollution legacy.
The nation's latest environmental controversy is a proposal to build Europe's largest open-pit gold mine. Thousands of Romanians have protested a draft law that would authorize the Roia Montan mine, owned by Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources.The government, which has a minority stake in the company worth $4 billion by some estimates, will likely decide the fate of the project this month.
Romania, which contains some of Europe’s most prolific mining areas, boasts staggering unemployment – as high as 80 percent in the villages of Roia Montan, the mine company reports. But it also bears deep environmental scars from decades of heavy industry and mining. In 2000, millions of gallons of waste spilled from a mine holding pond in northwestern Romania, sending a 30-mile toxic plume of cyanide and heavy metals into the nearby Tisza and Danube Rivers. It left more than 200 tons of dead fish in its wake and caused widespread damage in three countries, in what experts called the worst case of water pollution in Central and Eastern Europe ever.
Supporters of the new mine push for more jobs while opponents worry that it will add to the pollution burden of a nation still struggling with the environmental aftermath of rapid Soviet-era industrialization that began in the 1950s. The mine would use cyanide to extract gold and silver from rock.
Factories and smelters also have left a legacy of polluted land and water. In Copa Mic, one of Romania's most polluted towns, residents can expect to live an average of 54 years – nine years less than the national average. In addition, 96 percent of children under 14 have chronic respiratory problems, and as many as half of people tested showed signs of lead poisoning, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an international organization dealing with pollution problems in developing countries.
Kósa hopes his photos of the deep scars of Romania's industrial past will remind people that some wounds never heal. If the law authorizing the new mine is adopted, "other similar projects are coming," Kósa said. "And there aren't too many heavy industry success stories in Romania."
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.