Romania’s mining heartland faces up to post-coal future

Miners pose for a photo in the locker room prior to entering the shift at Lonea coal mine in Petrila, Romania, one of the coal mining cities located in the mountain area of Valea Jiului (The Jiu’s Valley). – AFP

PETROSANI, Romania: In the large, dark locker room of southern Romania’s Lonea coal mine, 20-year-old Liviu dons his uniform and helmet before embarking on a six-hour shift in a vanishing industry. “I found this job interesting because you retire faster, when you reach 45 years old,” Liviu says before descending 400 meters underground in an elevator dubbed “the birdcage” by his fellow miners. But whether he gets to retire as a miner may be out of Liviu’s control as Romania tries to bring an end to 160 years of coal-mining history in the Jiu Valley region.

Out of 15 mines active there before the fall of communism in 1989, only four are still operating today and two are already scheduled to close. While the rest of Romania gears up for parliamentary elections on Sunday, the prevailing mood in the Jiu Valley is one of apathy and mistrust. “What hope can I have? Who has ever tried to do something for this valley”, says 38-year-old miner Lucian Iganescu, from nearby Vulcan.

‘Hard and dangerous’
The sector historically enjoyed support from the communist regime and thereafter from left-wing president Ion Iliescu, who in the 1990s deployed miners against street protesters on several occasions. But since joining the EU in 2007, Bucharest has wound down subsidies for the loss-making coal sector and production has plummeted from 22 million tons in 1992 to just 600,000 tons last year.

The Jiu Valley now counts just 4,500 miners down from some 54,000 in 1990. Alin Udvar, manager of the Lonea mine, expects the last ton of coal to be extracted as soon as 2024. While he hopes that some of his 543 employees will then be transferred to neighboring sites, they are scheduled to close in 2030. Udvar echoes Liviu in giving one of the main attractions of the profession: “You become a miner to retire early.”

In Romania, one of the EU’s poorest countries, a miner with 20 years experience receives a pension of 4,000 lei (830 euros or $1,000), almost 10 per cent more than a miner’s average salary. But there is a high price to pay. According to Udvar, the average life expectancy for the men of the Jiu Valley is around 55 years. “I wouldn’t hire my 18-year-old boy in the mine for all the money in the world. This job is hard, dangerous and eats away at your health,” 44-year-old miner Ferenc Balog told AFP at the end of his shift, his face covered in coal dust.

“There are no options here for young people other than emigration.” According to a study carried out by PwC auditors, the region’s population has fallen from around 170,000 inhabitants in 1997 to 133,00 last year. Breathless due to silicosis, a lung disease that decimates miners, 63-year-old Petre Brait says he covered up his bad health when he was younger to keep going down the mine. “I had no choice, my children were still small,” he says. But now he knows that there is no future for mining. “Romania must reduce emissions, it cannot continue to move against the grain,” he says.

‘A healthy future’
Danut Buhaescu, mayor of another town in the valley, Uricani, criticizes successive governments for “lying” about the future of mining, without preparing the area for the industry’s disappearance. The country’s hopes of coping with the upheaval are pinned in large part on the EU’s Just Transition Fund, designed to help coal-dependent regions as the bloc tries to become carbon neutral by 2050.

According to the center-right government, the country should receive 1.9 billion euros ($2.3 billion) for the switch to renewable energy. Several wind energy producers have said they are ready to recruit in the Jiu Valley, hoping to obtain government aid in the process. But the miners who have swapped coal for wind can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Udvar recalls a group who went to the south-eastern city of Constanta to work on one of the biggest wind farms in the country. “I think only one of them stayed there,” he says. Lucian Ignatescu is among those who made that trip but subsequently returned to the valley. While he does not rule out retraining, he says it will be “only after I retire from mining”. Buhaescu meanwhile holds out hope that EU money could help develop sustainable tourism. “We have an exceptional region, intact forests, a wealth that should not be destroyed,” he says. Whichever way out of coal the valley chooses, “our children deserve a healthy future,” he says. – AFP

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