People in Runcurel, a small village in the south west of Romania, have lived between coal mines for 40 years. But after decades of putting up with noise, dust and a landscape that leaves a lot to be desired, the villagers were informed that they are now in the way of national interest.
The lignite mine Jilț North is running out of coal and the mine’s operator, the state-company Oltenia Energy Complex (OEC) needs the land on which peoples’ houses are standing. As negotiations failed because locals demanded fair compensations, the government passed a decision this winter to expropriate them for 1 euro per square meter. The 400 something villagers are now facing an urgent uphill battle against a goliath threatening to evict them from their homes in the next weeks, without receiving enough to start life anew.
But the villagers’ troubles with the coal company OEC reach farther back in time.
The heavy industrialisation of Romania under communist rule needed a significant amount of energy to fuel the planned growth. Progressively, vast and rich natural resources were to be exploited, from gold and iron to uranium or petrol. To illuminate the country, gas from the heart of the earth, coal from its crust and water running on the surface were harvested in power plants day and night.
These were dramatic changes for a mostly rural country. Starting with the 1960s, over a dozen lignite mines and two power plants were built in Gorj alone, one of 41 counties. Huge monsters of steel cut down the forests between age-old villages to dig out what was underneath them. The villagers didn’t mind: after all their land anyway went to the People’s Republic, the hope for steady employment and the comforts of modern life seemed compensation enough.
Today, these comforts still haven’t reached Runcurel.
Driving down an unmarked winding road separating the Jilț North and Jilț South mines you see an old church and cemetery, and later several houses. What you won’t find are street lights, even though Oltenia Energy Complex (OEC) with its 11 mines and four power plants can sometimes deliver up to 30% of the power used in Romania. The homes aren’t better off either – indoor plumbing means at most a sink in the kitchen.
Still, people living here aren’t complaining too quickly. Even today, when Romania has one of the best energy mixes in Europe and is therefore less dependent on coal than ever, everybody seems to be in favour of mining.
I have met people who couldn’t sleep because of the non-stop noise from the power plants; people whose crops were ruined by the thick dust settling everywhere during dry summers; and even people who have lost family members to illness directly related to pollution from the extraction and burning of coal. They all sing the same song: “We don’t want mining to stop, we don’t want the complex to close down. All we want is to be treated fairly, to be allowed to survive.”
The fear of change is understandable: With roughly 15.000 employees today the company is the country’s third biggest employer, surpassed only by other state giants - the National Post and the Romanian Railways. Having dropped from 45.000 employees in 1994, however, the company is in further decline. Last year alone, OEC recorded a loss of EUR 200 million.
One night in September 2015, the on-duty police officer in Runcurel was woken up by a strange call from a train conductor. The man informed him that 40 waggons full of coal are unable to continue their trip from the Jilț mine to the Turceni Power Plant.
The rails were blocked by a car parked right on the tracks. It belonged to Ionuț Purdescu, the owner of the land that the railroad crosses. Ionuț’s unusual parking spot was his form of protest against the company that denies him adequate compensation for using his land.
After the Romanian Revolution of 1989, properties taken by the communist state were restored to their original owners or their descendants. In Runcurel, this included parcels of land already used by Oltenia Energy Complex. The locals tried to sell their properties to OEC, but the prices the company offered were several times below the market price.
Instead of selling, some residents negotiated a job for themselves or for family members in the company, allowing the company to use their land free of charge. Since the only other option for survival is substinence agriculture, this seemed like a reasonable choice. But such deals were only made occasionally and the employment was always for a limited time.
Ionuț Purdescu was less successful than others. Before regaining his property from the state, he had studied Electromechanical Engineering at Petroșani University and he has been employed at OEC for many years. With the coal company’s railway right across it, the land Ionuț inherited from his family is an unusable burden for which he has to pay taxes.
After many failed negotiations to sell his land, Ionuț decided to demonstrate more drastically his right to receive compensation from OEC. That night in September 2015 he decided to park his car on his own property - in a spot where the railway happened to be as well.
At 8 AM the next morning, after interventions by the local police captain who is also a family friend, Ionuț conceded to let the train pass. He and his father were arrested and brought to the County Police in Motru to be seen immediately by the prosecutor. OEC requested their detention until they paid thousands of euros in damages caused by the delay. Father and son, however, having the deed of ownership for their land with them, were free before noon.
Ionuț’s protest is not an exception. Many of his neighbours have received land titles after the fall of communism, only to discover that their new properties are in the mine’s perimeter. Regular news stories of locals stopping the coal transport belts are a sign of the land owners’ frustration over failed negotiations with OEC. Their form of protest has even been introduced into the criminal code, threatening protesters with imprisonment in addition to a fine.
Back in 2012, Vasile Brădescu, then only 75 years young, was getting tired of the never-ending court battles to receive the land the communists took from his father. Just as in the case of Ionuț Purdescu, he only had a useless document indicating his property. The land, however, was now part of the mine. In a similar act of protest, he fenced off the part of his property that is crossed by the road and the railway and did not allow anyone to pass. OEC requested an urgent court decision to remove his construction, claiming that his improvised chain-link fence is a threat to Romania’s energy security. The judge allowed the company to remove the fence after five days and fined Vasile for building without a permit.
Even today, at almost 79 years old, Vasile regularly goes to court trying to regain his property.
Jilț North used up all of its coal, but there is still some left at the edge of the mine. Unfortunately for OEC, it lies under forests, meadows, orchards, houses, a school, two shops, and two historical monuments.
Right before Christmas 2015, 134 families received a notification asking them to come to the Energy Complex with ownership documents and a bank account number. They were invited in order to “establish a just compensation” for their land.
OEC had failed for years to find an agreement with land owners. Instead it negotiated with the Romanian government, which declared in Decision 960/2015 the land west of the mine to be of “public utility and national interest”. The government cleared the way for OEC to expropriate hundreds of hectares of private land and further determined the compensation for land owners at an average of one euro per square meter - even in cases where people still live on that land.
Compensation for what is on the land – be it houses, forests, or agricultural plantations – is not granted. Families could be kicked out of their homes and receive pennies for everything they own.
The families were also informed that they would have to vacate the land within 30 days – regardless of the result of the meeting for “establishing a just compensation”. Many didn’t go, refusing to believe that they would be evicted.
“The law says that if they want to expropriate, they have to come with an expert to evaluate my property. Nobody came, so how did they decide on one euro per square meter?” said Vasile Fotău, owner of a plot of land in the immediate vicinity of the mine.
Breach of constitutional law
Romania’s constitution determines that for projects of public interest the state has to provide compensations that “shall be agreed upon with the owner […] for damages to the soil, plantations or buildings”. By failing to negotiate with land owners and arbitrarily deciding on a very low compensation, the government’s and OEC’s actions are in breach of the constitution.
Other legal shortcomings include the lack of public consultations, a breach of the environmental permit for the expansion and the lack of landscape and urban planning permits. The decision further ignored the 2020 National Energy Strategy’s sustainable development goals and grants state aid to a commercial company in breach of European regulations, as the funds for the compensations come from the state budget. The general picture becomes absurd: the tax money collected from the locals is used to abusively expropriate them.
There are two ways the decision could still be stopped: it is annulled in court or revoked by the government. Given the government’s substantial failings outlined above, the first one seems possible, but lawsuits in Romania take years and the decision would not be suspended while the trial is on-going. By the time the court would give its final sentence, the coal under the village will have already burned.
Bankwatch and Greenpeace Romania, therefore, joined the people of Runcurel in requesting the government to revoke Decision 960. On January 29, a petition was launched against the abusive expropriations. On 24 March 2016, the two organisations are suing the Romanian government for ignoring the state’s laws and constitution.
While investors across the world are running away from coal for both economic and environmental reasons, Romania wants to reverse the trend and finances new investments. In this case, it could mean the disappearance of a village.
Share this story
Ask the Romanian government to revoke the decision >>
[for now only in Romanian]