While prospects look bright for coal workers in Bulgaria, the fate of their once powerful counterparts in Romania is more uncertain.
In the hot damp tunnels, a few hundred metres below ground, Romanian miners used to wish each other “noroc bun”, meaning good luck, as they went to work. But today the miners of Anina, a small town in south-western Romania, fear their luck has run out.
Coal extraction once formed the backbone of Romanian heavy industry, employing almost half a million people, including jobs above ground. A powerful political and economic force, bound together by strong unions, Romania’s miners showed their strength both before and after the fall of the communist regime.
In 1990 and 1991 they went on street rampages in Bucharest, bringing down the then prime minister and beating up those they saw as opponents of Socialist president Ion Iliescu. Today they are a reduced, even broken, force.
In Anina, men are mostly unemployed, spending their days sitting on benches in the town centre, playing backgammon, chit-chatting or gazing at passersby.
They don’t starve. Former miners, now pensioners, receive lei 800-1,200 a month, worth 230-340 euros, from the state, depending on their levels of experience. But the money covers only day-to-day needs.
Anina’s miners lost their jobs when Romania’s authorities ‘restructured’ the mining industry, closing down much of it. Many no longer head families, either. Wives who once worked near the mines in lumber or screw factories now live abroad, having taken low-paid jobs in Western Europe.
The authorities closed the mine in Anina in 2006, saying it was unprofitable. The 700 or so miners received redundancy payments worth more than 4 million euro. But the money has gone.
The ex-miners spent the cash on paying back loans, or buying appliances. Only a few invested in businesses, opening corner shops or starting small-scale firms. About 300 found new jobs, mainly in construction. The rest preferred to retire at an average age of 45.
Anina is one of many towns, mostly located in the Jiu Valley, that have suffered virtual economic death as a result of sweeping changes in Romania’s mining industry. The whole of the valley, once the heartland of mining in Romania, has been hit by a programme launched in 1997 with World Bank funds, aimed at closing unprofitable mines. Since then, about a hundred mines have shut, including about 40 in the Jiu Valley.
Only about a dozen still operate there. The valley’s population has fallen by half from 300,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 150,000 today, while the number of miners has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 46,000 17 years ago to 11,800. With coal now satisfying only one-third of Romania’s energy needs – hydroelectric power, hydrocarbon and nuclear energy making up the rest – the future of the entire sector is in doubt.
Dithering over investment
The ex-miners in Anina are in two minds about their old occupation. They would like their jobs back but at the same time feel no nostalgia for the circumstances under which they used to work. “It’s hard to believe any young man would choose to work in the harsh conditions of a mine,” one ex-miner said. “Only desperate people would choose such a job.”
Miners in Anina, like most across Romania, worked with much the same picks that their predecessors used 50 years earlier. The lamps were so old that they scarcely gave out any light. Miners’ work clothes were pitiful.
What the men would like to see today is fresh investment in the industry, and European work and safety standards.
Their dream is not wholly unrealistic. Like most European countries, Romania is looking to reduce its dependency on Russian energy, and to increase and diversify sources of domestically-produced energy. But the miners fear that the government’s indecision over privatisation, and on the future of mining in general, is holding things back.
Romania’s Economy Minister, Varujan Vosganian, recently dampened miners’ hopes of a revival of their industry when he insisted that the government’s energy plans did not include coal. “Opening coal mines is out of the question,” he said. “Romania will focus mainly on hydroelectric and nuclear power.”
The government has also ruled out privatising the remaining mines this year, saying it needs more time to weigh solutions. Meanwhile, it plans to merge the remaining viable Jiu Valley mines with two power plants to create a new energy holding.
Some major energy companies have shown interest in forming partnerships with the Romanian state, with a view to managing and upgrading coal-fired power plants that can meet modern environmental standards. But they, too, complain of Bucharest's indecision over privatisation, saying it is complicating investment plans.
The opaque stance of officialdom means that Anina’s future also hangs in the balance. The government insists no company is interested in reopening the local pit. But Marcel Hoara, an independent mining advisor, disagrees: “At least one foreign company is interested in applying technology to turn Anina’s pit coal into gas but their offer has simply been ignored until now.”
The British experience
While Romania wrestles with the uncertain future of its once powerful mining sector, experts are looking at parallel dilemmas faced by miners in other European countries.
One is Britain, a former mining giant whose pits were largely closed as a result of radical restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s. As oil prices skyrocket, however, Britain is mulling the same questions as Romania about coal power, and in a radical about-turn, the authorities are considering reopening a number of mines.
If mining does recommence in Britain, however, it will start out from a far lower base than in Romania. Of 114 British mines at work when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, only five still operate, employing 5,500 miners out of a previous workforce of 200,000.
Nevertheless, UK Coal, the largest coal producer in Britain, is actively considering reopening certain mines, like the Harworth Colliery, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. Harworth ceased production two years ago, when the price of coal was half what it is today, and at the time the company felt it could not justify the investment needed to access new reserves.
But the exponential rise in coal prices on international markets has created new opportunities for Harworth and a final decision on reopening is expected this year. If the mine gets the green light, it will produce up to 2 million tons of coal a year and employ 400 people.
Reopening Harworth will not come cheap. The work will cost about 100 million pounds and take four years. But it is still only about one-tenth of the estimated cost of constructing a new mine.
However, although a mine stood in the community for 80 years, the locals have now got used to its disappearance, and some oppose its reopening, worried about the impact on the environment and people’s health. Nor will the new mine necessarily re-employ those who used to work there.
“I don’t think former miners will return to the mine because they feel mining is not the business of the future,” David McGarry, former branch secretary of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, said. “They cannot go back to where they were 10 years ago.”
But McGarry wholly supports reopening the mine, saying it will bring new hope to an area blighted by unemployment and drug addiction: “The mine will employ some 400 people but once we take into account the auxiliary jobs, it rounds up to about 2,000 jobs,” he explained.
Reopening certain mines is not only backed by union officials like David McGarry but British energy experts as well. Using coal to produce a megawatt hour of electricity is twice as cheap as using natural gas and almost five times cheaper than oil-fired power plants, they say. In addition, coal reserves are expected to last at least another hundred years and possibly, twice that long.
A renaissance in Bulgaria
In a world facing dramatic rises in global warming, countries are increasingly investing in the production of renewable energies such as solar and hydro energy and wind power.
Most European countries have also closed down the bulk of their coal mines in recent years, partly in obedience to strict directives from Brussels on cutting CO2 emissions and partly to cut high production costs.
While no one questions the need to cut greenhouse emissions and so slow climate change, trade unions in Britain accuse the British government of lacking a long-term strategy for energy. While the authorities focus more and more on renewable resources, unions say these can only potentially cover 3 to 4 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.
Moreover, replacing coal-based energy with non-polluting alternatives will take at least 15 years. “Coal must stay in the equation because the UK can’t manage without it yet,” David McGarry says.
On the other side of Europe, Romania has taken a similar path to Britain when it comes to complying with EU environmental standards – closing mines instead of investing in upgrades to boost productivity. “Romania is a country that has reached its Kyoto goals, but at a high cost,” mining expert Marcel Hoara complains.
But not all countries in the Balkans have taken the same path. In Radnevo, in southern Bulgaria, local community life revolves around the flourishing Maritsa Iztok mining complex, the largest energy complex in south-eastern Europe.
Maritsa Iztok, which consists of three lignite-fired thermal power stations, enrichment plants, a briquette plant and its own railway network, employs a total of 7,500 workers.
The complex is responsible for about 85 per cent of Bulgaria’s total coal production and supplies energy needs of over 70 per cent of households. Around 3,000 tons of lignite are extracted every hour from the mines, and about 25 million tons per year.
With a radius of tens of kilometers, it takes visitors a good four hours to inspect only one of the mines, Troyanovo 3. Here, an excavator works on a site from which the coal has been extracted. Once excavation is complete, the surface is covered with earth so that it can be returned to agricultural use.
These Bulgarian miners work in very different conditions from their Romanian counterparts, and feel upbeat about their prospects: “All my colleagues are young, under 45, and we are all satisfied with our working conditions and salaries,” one miner said during his break.
Todor Pohlupkov, the technical manager of Troyanovo 3, who has worked at the mine for 20 years, is also delighted that the Sofia government has taken such a direct interest in ensuring a future for Bulgarian mining.
“If the mines closed, we would face a difficult situation,” he said. “Three years ago, a foreign investor tried to buy them and was planning to close one of them. Some 3,000 miners were in danger of losing their jobs. But people stayed together, organised a strike, put pressure on parliament and finally the investor had to drop his plans,” Pohlupkov said, proudly.
The future of Bulgarian mining has not always looked so bright. In the years immediately following the end of the communist regime, the coal industry ran at a loss and only kept operating thanks to large state subsidies.
The sector has also seen cutbacks. The mining of anthracite coal, sometimes called blue coal, which has the highest carbon count of all coals, has stopped altogether. Mining of black coal, which also has a high calorific content, has dropped by around 90 per cent in recent years, while the mining of lignite, or brown coal - the lowest ranking form of coal and used almost exclusively as fuel for electric power generation - has decreased by 50 per cent, due to the closure of underground mines.
But in 2007, the outlook for coal became more favourable. As the only available domestic source of energy, a decision was taken to increase production and, since coal prices increased, the mines have become more secure, financially.
Maritsa Iztok’s executive director, Ivan Markov, is optimistic: “We are seeing a renaissance of the coal industry, not only in Bulgaria, but in Europe at large,” he says. “To entirely renounce mining now would be a wrong move.”
Indeed, Maritsa Iztok plans to increase coal exploitation and reach a production target of 28 million tons of coal a year by 2010, compared with about 25 million tons now. As a result, demand for mine workers in Bulgaria is actually growing.
Mining union leader Valentin Valchev says about 50 people compete for every available job at Maritsa Iztok, drawn by the promise of job stability and relatively high average monthly salaries of almost 500 euros, not including bonuses and perks that round up income by at least 25 per cent. This is more than double the average salary in Bulgaria.
Nobody wants to quit at Maritsa Iztok, even if the risks of working in mines remain. Two men died in March and April this year as a result of accidents at work. Mining accidents are frequent. “Coal is not everything in life,” Valchev says, “but thanks to the good salaries and conditions, most people here place their future hopes in mining.”
It is a different story back in Anina. There, both miners and experts are still wondering whether the authorities will commit themselves to making the investment that the industry desperately needs, if it is to have any future at all.
“The government has to carefully take into consideration all the trends in the international oil and gas market and put cash into making upgrades to boost productivity,” Marcel Hoara says. But these are only hopeful words, and for now at least, the future of Romania’s mining industry looks bleak.
Andreea Gheorghe was born in 1982 in Panciu, Romania. She is an award-winning journalist and editor, specializing in economics and currently works for Antena 3, a leading Romanian news channels.
Energy is a topic that preoccupies officials, politicians and citizens across Europe - and arguably one of the biggest challenges facing this continent and the international community.