Romania's Sinking Village

Romania's Sinking Village

Photography and text by Amos Chapple

The village of Geamana once lay deep in a fertile valley. Today it lies under 90 meters of industrial waste. Forty years after it was evacuated, RFE/RL’s Amos Chapple met some of the villagers who refused to flee, and discovered it’s not just buildings entombed under the mire.

Geamana in the early 1970s. The church spire was the last point of the village to catch the evening sun. When this picture was taken, plans for extracting the copper from a nearby mountain were already under way.

Today that same church spire stands as a monument to a village lost under a lake of slurry.

In the spring of 1977, prospectors representing the government of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu arrived in Geamana and told locals to get ready for a life elsewhere. The villagers were offered around $2,000 compensation for their homes. Geamana’s 300 families then scattered throughout Romania.

And work at the Rosia Poieni mine began in earnest. The site is the second-largest copper mine in Europe and employs around 500 people. Note the runoff lake in the background, where the village once stood.

The same lake, with the mine in the top right of the picture. Once communist authorities built the dam in the foreground to seal up Geamana’s valley, a silty gray liquid began creeping through the lanes of the village.

The slurry, which continues to pour into the valley today, is a result of "froth flotation," a process used by Rosia Poieni and most other copper mines around the world.

Rock rich in copper is ground into powder, then put into baths of bubbling water. The hydrophobic copper flakes cling to air bubbles, creating a coppery froth that is skimmed off the top of the baths.

photo by Reuters

The remaining slurry is discarded. It is this waste that drowned Geamana. And the lake continues to rise, climbing the walls of the valley at the rate of around 1 vertical meter each year.

Along with the slurry from the mine, some sections of the runoff lake have turned red as a result of "acid mine drainage."

The acidic red water is a result of rain and springwater running through the minerals exposed by the mine.

Although this process occurs naturally, mining greatly intensifies its effect.

But despite the inundation, not everyone left Geamana’s valley.

Maria Prata is one of around 20 villagers who stayed, moving to higher ground as the lake rose. The 70-year-old says she spent her childhood in Geamana sleeping in a stable, "me on one side, the cows on the other."

Maria and her late husband photographed a few years before the prospectors arrived. She is sanguine about the activity of the mine. "What’s done is done. The village is ruined now. At least [with the mine here], the people have work." But like other remaining villagers, she holds real bitterness for one promise that the communist authorities broke.

The villagers were assured that their ancestors’ graves would be relocated. It never happened.

This graveyard was inundated only in the past few years. Many other graves lie deep beneath the slurry and are now virtually impossible to recover.

Ana Prata tends to the grave that she will share with her husband, who died in 2012. It lies on a hill high above the lake, a precaution against the fate of Ana's parents and grandparents whose graves lie buried beneath meters of slurry.

Nicolae Turdean, the general manager of the Rosia Poieni mine's operator, speaking with the media at the runoff lake. He told RFE/RL he knew nothing about the graves currently being submerged but said a church near those graves would be moved.

Turdean told RFE/RL the villagers who remained in the valley after being given compensation "are living in our houses. ... But we tolerate the situation and will continue to tolerate the situation as long as they don’t affect the works around."

But the growing fame of this site is bringing attention that the state-run mine appears eager to avoid.

Former Geamana local Cornel Holhorea told RFE/RL the mining company had made plans to demolish the spire of this church around five years ago. The work was canceled after strong resistance from Geamana locals. But as the lake continues to rise, soon the last remnants of the village will be gone forever.