How Romania’s mine remediation program is transforming lives

By Robin Dean

In the whirl of activity and excitement that’s involved in starting up a new mining operation, planning for its eventual closure is probably the last thing anyone wants to think about. And yet there’s sorry evidence all over the world of derelict mines that leave pollution, health hazards and contaminated land in their wake.

Until recently, nowhere was this truer than Romania. Despite its mineral riches in the form of lignite, black coal, gold, copper, lead, zinc and mercury, the sad legacy of the Ceausescu era was more than 300 abandoned sites—nearly half the total number of mines in the country.

After the Romanian government stopped mining subsidies following the 1989 revolution and the fall of Ceausescu, many of these mines were left completely unremediated. At their worst, waste dumps and huge tailings dams left heavy metals to pollute water courses and ground water. Chemicals and dust in the atmosphere posed serious health dangers. Large areas of land that could have been put to productive economic use were completely out of action. All of the Romanian mining companies were state owned—and the state had no money to put things right.

Then, in 2000, things started to change. The World Bank agreed to fund the closure of a first tranche of 29 mines, and the U.K. government’s Department of International Development contributed by paying for the design for the closures. Wardell Armstrong, an engineering and environmental consultancy with a major specialization in international mining, was called in to oversee the project.

I spent 18 months in Romania as project manager. Our first task was to audit the mine closure designs produced by the design institutes in Romania, and to advise on what was needed to bring them up to international standards. There was a lack of information in important areas such as water and soil samples, so we visited all 29 mine sites to fill in the gaps, properly assess the impact of each closure, and get the designs changed to address the issues we found.

The remediation at each site included filling in underground workings, fitting shaft caps, treating mine waters, demolishing and removing buildings, and restoring the land for agricultural, forestry or business use. We vetted all of the contract documents to ensure they were properly evaluated, and audited the contractors on site to ensure they were working to specifications and to environmental and health and safety standards.

It was a shock to the contractors to have people challenging and correcting them for the first time, but they soon got to know what we were looking for and most of them changed completely. Instead of turning up with a few men and a flask in a car, they soon had proper transportable facilities like toilets, shower cubicles, and even in one case, a mess hut with full-time cook.

A number of specialists from different disciplines within Wardell Armstrong spent time in Romania during the course of the project—geotechnical people to advise on waste dumps and ground stability, ventilation experts, hydrogeological experts to look at water emissions, and contract specialists.

A key part of the process was also to run workshops to train people in Romania’s mining companies, design institutes and Ministry of Economy and Commerce so they, too, would be knowledgeable about the project and able to work to FIDIC contracts—the procedure used by the World Bank.

Restoring Social Pride

And the results? There are stories from every part of Romania about how the mine remediation program has transformed not just the local environments but the lives of the people who live there. And there’s a recurring theme; the physical restoration has also restored a sense of social pride for the first time in decades.

In Vermesti, a local doctor who had to vacate a location used for a mental hospital, took over a restored mine building, refurbished it with a donation and converted the site into a tranquil rural area where patients could spend time outside, with plots of land they could cultivate.

In Magureni Tufeni, a local entrepreneur took over a similar building to start up a new venture producing plastic sheathing for fiber optic cable.

A mountainous area in Baia Mari to the north had been severely affected by erosion and water runoff from waste dumps. Water-control structures using local timber stopped the problem, and a program of seeding and tree planting restored it to its previous natural state.

There had been no household-waste dumps anywhere in Romania before 2000. Wardell Armstrong was involved in building its first properly designed and lined landfill site in a former open cast mine in Bodos—including a proper process of consultation with villagers whose voices were heard for the first time since Ceausescu. The tolls they decided to charge to allow waste haulage trucks to pass through the village paid for a local health clinic. The waste dump is now covered and sealed, the open-pit mine is shut, and the surroundings have been reprofiled into a completely green area with a lake. The villagers in nearby Baraolt put up their own monument to celebrate the closing of the mine workings and the removal of their household waste.

There are stories of new roofs being built, houses being painted for the first time in years, and whole villages being refurbished. The positive social effects of no longer having to live on top of a derelict mine site are making people proud and inspired to do more. The properly managed closure of every mine creates its own individual and dramatic transformation. People appreciate that they now finally have a government that’s doing something to restore the quality of the places where they live. And the government itself has done much to restore its own reputation in the eyes of the international community.

Tight Contract Management

The closure program for the first 29 mines was completed as planned in 2005. The World Bank allocated $30 million for the program, but by tight contract management Wardell Armstrong accomplished it for only $12 million. The $18 million saved went into a social fund to support micro-credit enterprise and business incubation.

The second stage is now under way, with the managed closure of a further 40 mines. I have a continuing role as technical adviser to the project management unit within the Ministry of Economy and Commerce—effectively auditing the auditors and ensuring that critical processes such as the remediation of tailings dams in metal mines are properly controlled.

The consultation processes customary in developed countries are now becoming normal in Romania, with local mayors successfully negotiating assistance as part of the closures to improve their villages or towns with new infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

Achieving economic growth remains difficult. The country has been hard hit by the global recession. Some public sector salaries have recently been cut by 25%, and much of the World Bank loan still has to be repaid.

But changes in international and local mining laws pioneered by the World Bank are starting to have a positive effect—and not only in Romania. Setting money aside to ensure safe closure and managed remediation at the point where the exploitation license is granted is now seen to be working, as well as obviously being the right thing to do.

Romania can take great credit for having faced up to its responsibilities, putting right the damage done in the past. The results are there for all to see. But their experience seems to point to a broader issue that goes well beyond mining. Doing things intelligently and responsibly can have powerfully positive social effects, and inspire others to do the same.

Robin Dean is technical director at Wardell Armstrong (, an independent engineering consultancy specializing in mineral resource development and management.