November 22, 2021 12:06 PM
Three hundred meters underground, Sebastian Tirintică operates an elevator in the Livezeni mine, in the valley of the Jiu River in Romania. His eyes are wide with concentration as he flips the lever to lower the cage which carries iron, wood and other materials his colleagues need to mine coal. His attention keeps the other miners alive, which is true for everyone who works at Livezeni. Most of the equipment is over thirty years old. Miners go underground knowing that a ceiling support could collapse or a conveyor belt could break. In seven years of working in the mine, Tirintică found himself buried in coal three times. Each time his colleagues have pulled him out. “Danger unites us,” he says. “It is the brotherhood of the underground. You know that the colleague behind you can save your life ”.
But outside the mine, at the institutional level, he says, there is no one watching his back. The coal sector has been in decline for thirty years, and little else has been created to replace lost jobs. In the mid-1990s, the fifteen mines in the Jiu Valley employed 45,000 people. Today about three thousand workers remain in four mines: Livezeni, Vulcan, Lonea and Lupeni. They are all set to close by 2030, as Romania strives to meet the EU’s climate goals. Coal accounts for about a fifth of the country’s energy supplies, less wind and solar combined.
With the closure of the activities, the inhabitants of these cities who depend on the coal industry are forced to leave to find a decent pay. Many have already left. In the five-story apartment building in Tirintică, almost half of the houses are empty. “We need something to replace mining,” says Lucian Enculescu, head of Libertatea 2008 union in Livezeni. “Anything”.
Various EU funding programs will begin distributing money in an effort to help countries phase out coal and facilitate a “just transition” to clean energy. But currently only one is active in the valley: a training center in Petroșani, the city closest to Livezeni. The goal is to professionally retrain two hundred people over the next two years as wind turbine technicians. The project is managed by the Renewable energy school of skills with the support of the Romanian Wind Energy Association.
The center, which went into operation at the end of September, is funded through the European Human Capital program. It is the pilot of a larger proposal to retrain eight thousand miners and other people in the valley over the next ten years. The goal could be achieved using EU funds, according to Sebastian-Petre Enache, CEO of Ress: “The industry is committed to giving priority on the job market to those who graduate from the academy.”
Tirintică and his colleagues are aware that coal is on the verge of extinction and welcome the new program, convinced that the work in the wind energy sector is suitable for them.
The training program, which lasts from one to four months, worth around eight thousand euros, is free for miners. The course allows him to have the necessary certification to work in turbines throughout Romania and abroad. “This redevelopment program is perhaps the best thing that has happened to the Jiu Valley in the last decade,” says former miner Adrian Borbel, now a trainer of wind energy technicians. “Wind energy offers jobs that allow people to support their families, even if they are the only ones working in the household.”
Tirintică and his colleagues are aware that coal is on the verge of extinction and welcome the new program, saying they want to learn and believe that jobs in the wind energy sector are suitable for them. After working in the mine with decades-old machines, state-of-the-art wind equipment feels like a luxury. “Many people ask me: aren’t you afraid of working on a wind turbine?”, Says Tirintică. “How can I be afraid of working at a height of one hundred meters? When I’m in the mine, I go three hundred meters underground every day ”.
A practical experience
Despite the enthusiasm, some miners argue that the project is not that perfect. The valley is not suitable for wind energy and anyone who wants to work in the industry will have to leave. Many say the wages offered by the renewables sector are not high enough to compensate them for the time spent away from their families. Tirintică has already taken a retraining course in the wind industry and said that he was offered a salary of 1,350 euros per month to work as a basic technician. That would be more than the six hundred to eight hundred euros he earns in the mine, but it would also mean spending half the year away from home and family. He would also have to give up his side jobs and pay a rent in a city with a probably higher cost of living than in the Jiu Valley.
The training is designed to provide miners with hands-on experience, so that their starting salaries can match those of the mines. Over time, graduates from the program could earn up to five thousand euros a month, according to Enache. But the time it takes to build a career in renewables runs up against miners’ short-term need to make money. Some say that if they still have to stay away from family they might consider other better-paying jobs. For example, in construction or harvesting asparagus in Germany you can earn between two thousand and 2,800 euros a month.
People like Tirintică, who have families in the valley, have chosen to work in the mine following an economic logic. He grew up hearing stories about underground work from his father and had no intention of doing it himself. But given that most employers in the region offer only three hundred or four hundred euros a month, he saw the mine as the only way to financial stability.
Reshape the economy
For decades, the local economy was dominated by coal. The incoming European money aims to diversify it. Romania has access to around two billion euros from the EU’s Just transition fund. This process begins with the creation of specific plans for the country’s coal regions, including the Jiu Valley. The European Commission hired the consultancy PwC to manage the planning process. The international network of consultants held many meetings and workshops with local stakeholders, including mayors, union leaders, priests and NGOs. But, according to the miners, they did not speak to a single worker on the front line.
The most recent draft of the project proposes to reshape the economy, build infrastructure, improve the quality of life and promote local entrepreneurship. It supports the creation of programs to attract international investors, build centers where people can train to start careers in technology and other sectors, and to develop tourism in the region. How these plans can be implemented remains an open question.
“Everyone is asking: why aren’t investors coming?”, Says Florin Tiberiu Iacob-Ridzi, mayor of Petroșani. “It is because we are 100 kilometers from any highway. The Jiu valley is somewhat isolated ”.
Until a strategy is in place, miners must find solutions for themselves, knowing they could soon lose their jobs. Those close to retirement age of 45 plan to accept the government’s $ 10,000 severance pay, periodically offered to reduce the number of coal-dependent jobs. In addition to the lump sum, they rely on the generous pension granted for the dangerous working conditions. The younger miners, on the other hand, are forced to formulate backup plans. Some are already doing a second job, in addition to shifts in the mine, doing repairs, laying tiles or driving delivery trucks.
Mădălin Brândău, a miner for six years, recently took a course on wind energy in working at height, held by the same organization that manages the Petroșani center. At the moment, he says, the mine is the best option and has not yet signed a contract to switch to renewables. He knows, however, that the date of the elimination of coal in Romania is near, and he is thinking about what to do.
“I’m preparing for when the mines close,” he says. “I took a welding course. I got my truck driver’s license. I took all the courses that were available. When the mines close, I will put all my certifications on the table ”. If possible, he would like to stay in his hometown, where he sings in a traditional Romanian band along with other miners.
For now, with few other lucrative jobs available, miners like Tirintică and Brândău continue to go underground hoping to make it out alive at the end of their shift. “As a child, seeing constant accidents and explosions, I cried late into the night praying that God would close the Petrila mine where my father worked,” says Brândău. He has not yet told his mother that he works as a rescuer, entering the most dangerous underground areas to rescue his colleagues or put out fires.
Wind energy courses in Petroșani will begin by the end of the year, but the future of the Jiu valley remains uncertain. “We know what we should do,” says Iacob-Ridzi, the mayor of Petroșani. “But nobody knows how”.
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article appeared in the British newspaper The Guardian.