Europe’s largest waste-related ghetto is to be found in Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s fourth biggest city. Around 1,500 people, mostly Roma, live in four different informal settlements around the Pata Rât landfill, situated 6 kilometres away from the city centre. Many of them live in improvised shelters, made with materials that they can find at the landfill, such as cardboard, plastic or rotten wood. The majority of people from Pata Rât live in extreme poverty. Some of them have no access to utilities, not even electricity.
The names of the four settlements are: Dallas, Garbage Dump, Cantonului street and new Pata Rât /Colina Verde, each with its distinct history of discrimination and environmental exposure. Leaks from the landfill pollute the soil and groundwater. The inhabitants often suffer from ear, eye and skin infections, asthma or bronchitis, high blood pressure, heart and stomach problems due to oozing substances and noxious smoke when waste is burned. Job opportunities are limited apart from those in the waste dump. Most of the children do not regularly attend school. While the social, economic and environmental issues around Pata Rât are complex, one thing is clear: the situation is the result of long-standing structural violence, including environmental racism, against the affected Roma communities. The environmental justice case is inextricably tied to racial and citizen rights issues and the problem has been explicitly defined as a form of “environmental racism [that] dehumanizes poor Roma and pollutes the milieu where they are forced to live” (Vincze, 2013, p. 389).
The Dallas community has been established in the ‘60s by poor Roma families who came to make a living from selecting recyclable materials form the industrial area and the landfill. This community is still in the same place practicing the same type of work. The Cantonului community was created by a few Roma families that have been evicted, in the end of the ‘90s, from different places from the city (Cluj-Napoca) and relocated to Pata Rât as a an initially temporary measure. However, after more than 20 years, they are still there. Many of them do not go work at the landfill, instead they have informal jobs in the city in construction or at the sanitation company. The third community from the landfill are the poorest and most discriminated Roma from Pata Rât. Almost all of them are illiterate, and their only source of income is from collecting recyclable waste from the landfill, as much as the other Roma from Pata Rât allow them to do so. The ‘Coastei’ community had to settle 800 meters from the landfill and 200 meters from a former pharmaceutical waste dump following a forced and illegal eviction of 250 mostly Romani people from Coastei Street in December 2010. After their homes were demolished, around half of the 76 families have been provided with housing at Pata Rât. One room may host a family with up to 12 members – and some of the dwellings come without sanitation or proper cooking facilities. Each block of four homes shares one water connection which provides only cold water. The remaining families were not offered any accommodation and were forced to build improvised shelters with materials from the landfill, such as cardboard, plastic or rotten wood. The fact that the settlement is only poorly served by public transport has only improved slowly. Consequently, the majority the people working in the city centre lost their jobs and their children found it difficult to attend school.
Since 2012, the Cluj municipality has been working to expand the landfill from Pata Rât by building a new dump, with EU funds, which has not been completed until 2017. This happened, apparently without acknowledging the ongoing environmental impacts on the local segregated population.
In 2014, the Cluj-Napoca County Court declared illegal the city authorities’ decision to displace the families from Coastei Street and force them to live under such conditions. It ruled that adequate housing in line with the minimum legal standards be provided and that damages be paid to the families.
In 2017, the European Commission took Romania to the European Court of Justice for its failure to close and rehabilitate 68 illegal landfills, including Pata Rât, especially because Romania had been allocated funding by the EU’s European Regional Development Fund to replace the substandard waste dump with a new waste disposal system.