The sludge king: how one man turned an industrial wasteland into his own El Dorado

Show caption A man looking for scrap metal in Baia Mare, Romania. Photograph: Alex Clapp The sludge king: how one man turned an industrial wasteland into his own El Dorado When a Romanian businessman returned to his hometown and found a city blighted by mining waste, he hatched a plan to restore it to its former glory. He became a local hero, but now prosecutors accuse of him a running a multimillion dollar fraud Alexander Clapp Thu 1 Sep 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The first time I heard the name Daniel Boldor, I was in Bucharest in a room full of police officers. A discussion about wealthy countries shipping their waste to poorer countries had turned to what Romania – one of the major recipients of Europe’s trash – was doing to fight back. Strict surveillance was being conducted at ports, the officers affirmed, and cargo trucks were undergoing checks. And then one of the policemen asked if I had ever heard the story of Daniel Boldor. For a moment, his colleagues awkwardly scanned the floor with their eyes, as if the officer had made some kind of gaffe. Yes, they seemed to eventually nod in agreement, a sense of enthusiasm overtaking the table. It was an extraordinary story.

It sounded like a fairytale. Some years earlier, hundreds of miles north of Bucharest, deep in the mountains of Transylvania, a Roma man claimed to have discovered a great lost treasure: thousands of tonnes of gold and copper that had been dug up decades earlier, then forgotten. His name was Daniel Boldor, and he had a plan. He found investors across the world. He paid his fellow Roma to gather the metal for him. Then he began selling his treasure. Buyers from South Africa to South Korea proved willing to pay tremendous sums of money for it.

Soon enough Boldor was a very rich man. He also turned out to be more than just an entrepreneur. Over the course of a hard economic decade, in a country that had been pillaged of its natural resources by multinational companies, he became a renegade, Robin Hood in a tracksuit. He took from Romania’s reviled communist past and gave hope to its present. He employed hundreds of Roma who were ferociously loyal to him. He built an empire out of lost gold, and drove the sports cars to prove it.

It sounded like a fairytale because, continued the police officers, it was. They proceeded to tell a second story, one as stupefying as the first. The true story, they claimed, was that Boldor had got rich by selling treasure that never really existed. It was all an intricate con. They pulled out their phones and scrolled through photos of people with shovels standing next to ragged piles of what resembled construction rubble. This is what Boldor was sending, said the officers, jostling their phones in front of me so I could get a better look. According to the officers, Boldor had swindled companies all over the world by taking their money, then shipping them dirt.

Daniel Boldor in Fersig, Romania. Photograph: Alex Clapp

And for years, they said, he had somehow got away with it – until 2015, when Boldor’s biggest-ever shipment was busted by Chinese customs officials, who crowbarred open one of the cargo containers of metal he had dispatched, and discovered 20 tonnes of rocky soil inside. Now Boldor was in Romania’s legal crosshairs. On the other side of the country, in the Black Sea port of Constanța, one of the country’s most dogged prosecutors was attempting to have Boldor convicted and sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison on charges ranging from tax evasion to customs fraud.

So where is Boldor now, I replied at long last to the room of police officers. They shrugged. No one could really say.

A few days later I boarded a 12-hour night train from Bucharest to Transylvania to try to find him.

* * *

Tucked close to the borders with Ukraine and Hungary, the city of Baia Mare sits at the northern edge of Transylvania, amid a billowed carpet of tawny farmland that gives way to snow-splotched mountains. On my first morning in the city last year, the head of its environmental police informed me that Daniel Boldor was not in Baia Mare, and probably not even in Romania, for that matter. But only a few hours later, the owner of a local scrapyard told me that he knew Boldor and proceeded to call him up. After telling Boldor I was a journalist, he handed me the phone. Sure, Boldor said, he was in Baia Mare and free to meet. He could also get me an interview with the city’s mayor, if I was interested.

A short, swaggering man with intense brown eyes and a gravelly voice, Boldor met me at The Buffet, a cafe located – as Boldor pointed out on our first day together – on the same street as the city’s police headquarters and the county courthouse. Over my next few weeks in Baia Mare, Boldor spent much of his time at The Buffet. Along with nine companies, and real estate across Romania, plus an apartment in Dubai and stakes in a Swiss ski resort, he claimed to own it. Most days he would strut into the cafe in the early afternoon, usually dressed in dark sweatpants and a hooded parka, and head for a corner booth, where he’d spend the next few hours talking into his phone with practised weariness, occasionally entertaining my questions about who he was and why he was in trouble with the police.

Nicolae Ceaușescu with a worker at a metallurgic plant at Resita, 1970. Photograph: Interfoto/Alamy

His story began unremarkably enough. In 2001, age 24, Boldor left Baia Mare for west London and took up work in the building trade. His first job involved demolishing bathrooms and kitchens around Harrow and Notting Hill. He spoke little English at the time and shared a dingy flat with a handful of other Romanians. Once he had saved £15,000, he set up a construction firm of his own. By 2007, he had called in his four younger brothers from Romania and appointed them to his building sites across the UK, which he began filling with electricians from eastern Europe and bricklayers from Ireland.

Boldor climbed quickly. Only a few years after he was dismantling kitchens in Notting Hill he was overseeing the refurbishment of a 100-room hotel, the Enterprise in Earls Court. “There was no messing about with Daniel,” Ben Rejeb, a Tunisian marble salesman who provided Boldor with material for his construction work on the Harrow Central Mosque in 2010, told me. Boldor gave away little about himself. “In the construction industry you don’t discuss where you get your materials or what you pay for them,” Octavian Babici, another former construction partner, told me. “But with Danny this was even more the case. No one knew what he was thinking.”

In person, Boldor carries himself like a man with better places to be and better people to meet. The names of Arab oil princelings, Nigerian construction moguls and Indian hospitality tycoons bob in and out of his stories. At The Buffet, when he wasn’t working his way through a carton of thin white Sobranie cigarettes, he would be tapping away frantically on his phone, occasionally stopping to snatch a toothpick off the table and rake the inside of his ear. When he detected impatience on my end, he would pause to dispense morsels of knowhow. Of Europe’s environmental authorities: “They play tricks with words. ‘Hazardous waste’! But there’s no hazardous waste here in Baia Mare. Go test it.” Of Romania’s political class: “They can all be corrupted. But you just need to know how to corrupt them.”

After 10 years in London, Boldor decided to return home to take care of his ageing parents. There was no grand plan, he told me. But he wasn’t the kind of man who would wait for something to fall into his lap.

Boldor’s native Transylvania may be a poor place, but it’s also one blessed with staggering riches. The fertility of its soil is legendary. Some of Europe’s last primeval forests quilt its hills. But the region’s most coveted treasure lies out of sight. Beneath the Carpathian Mountains, which coil down through Transylvania like a serpent, sit some of the world’s largest deposits of gold and copper. Romania’s history could be written in the waves of outsiders – invaders and colonisers from the Slavs to the Saxons – who have launched claims to this wealth.

In 1947, 30 years before Boldor was born, Romania’s communist dictatorship turned the mining of those mountains into a huge, communal undertaking. Every morning for almost half a century, 10,000 residents of Baia Mare boarded cable cars that lofted them into the mountains. There, they pick-axed valuable earth, which was transported to a vast metallurgical complex on the swampy eastern edges of Baia Mare, a little more than two miles from the pastel storefronts of its old Habsburg centre. Originally known as Phoenix, and later as Cuprom, its workers were tasked with grinding and smelting troughs of excavated material into ingots of copper and gold. By 1970, Cuprom had become one of cold war Europe’s most productive industrial complexes, churning out tonnes of precious metals every month.

Then, in December 1989, the world that had built Cuprom came crashing down. A popular uprising culminated in the execution by firing squad of Romania’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Virtually overnight, the cult of productivity that had aspired to provide the nation with full employment and industrial self-reliance vanished. Thousands of miners from Baia Mare left, many heading for Chile to work its copper pits.

Worse was to follow. If Baia Mare is known anywhere outside Romania today, it is as the site of one of Europe’s greatest environmental disasters. In January 2000, heavy snow melt caused 26m gallons of stagnant cyanide – used to extract gold from ore at Cuprom and sitting in a huge basin two miles west of the city – to overflow its plastic lining and pour into a nearby river. The poison then worked its way across the waterways of south-eastern Europe, killing fish, birds and even horses as it progressed. Within four days, the cyanide had coursed into the Danube, poisoning the drinking supply of more than 2 million people across four countries, before finally flushing out into the Black Sea.

Baia Mare became a byword for catastrophe. And yet the mountains around the city still possessed vast mineral wealth, and over the 2000s, international investors flew to the city in the hopes of reigniting its old industrial fires. None succeeded. Removing tonnes of soil saturated with cyanide, modernising the ageing equipment, training a new generation of Romanian miners and metallurgists: it was just too expensive. Besides, one condition of Romania’s 2007 entry into the EU was cleaning up its communist-era industrial infrastructure. In Baia Mare, tens of millions of euros were put into mines and factories – not to revive them, but to shutter them for good.

The gold-mining complex in Baia Mare at the centre of the 2000 cyanide spill. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

By the time Boldor returned to the city in 2011, its industrial zones resembled one of his old demolition sites. The Cuprom facility had been all but abandoned for 20 years. Across a wasteland the size of more than 100 football fields, crumbling smelters, gutted flotation systems and decrepit laboratories jutted forth like gravestones. Mangy dogs crisscrossed the railway tracks that had once shuttled ore down from the mountains. In 1995, in a sorry attempt to attract foreign investment, a 351-metre-high smelting chimney had been raised above the collapsing complex. Designed to discharge dangerous metallurgical toxins high into the air, it merely rained filth over wider stretches of Baia Mare. By 2011, the chimney – still Romania’s tallest structure – was no longer in use. It just towered over the city, a scarecrow over a blighted field.

Out of such wreckage a former construction worker with no metallurgical experience not only built an empire, but charted his way into taking over one of the legendary mining complexes of communist Europe. For Boldor has not only made millions from Cuprom. Today, he owns much of it.

* * *

On a grey February morning Boldor drove me 30 miles south of Baia Mare to Fersig, the village where he grew up. “We were asleep here in the 1990s,” Boldor told me, as he chewed through a packaged croissant. In the decade after Ceaușescu’s execution, he said, Romania was robbed blind. The resources needed to rebuild the state – steel, timber, oil – were snapped up by giant western European companies. Then the EU, citing environmental reasons, shut down many of the few great industries Romania had left. To Boldor, there was no better symbol of Romania’s fate than Baia Mare itself. The city was encircled by mountains that, owing to bureaucratic machinations, it could no longer mine. It was outfitted with flotation systems and smelter chimneys that could no longer float or smelt. And it was full of workers who could no longer conduct their proudest and most profitable work.

“Half this place left after 1989,” Boldor told me as we exited the highway for Fersig, an unprepossessing village of squat concrete homes. Boldor nosed his Audi through muddy lanes before pulling into his parents’ yard, which played host to a caged dog, a chicken coop and a trio of BMWs. The house was tall for Fersig, rising three storeys, the top two having been built with remittances Boldor and his younger brothers had sent their parents from London. “Do many other Roma live in town?” I asked as we got out of the car. “No,” Boldor answered.

The area around Baia Mare is not only notorious for its environmental despoliation. It’s also known for the grim fate of its Romany minority. In 2012, Baia Mare’s mayor declared their shanties, located along a creek outside the city, a “bag of poverty and dirt”. He proceeded to force hundreds of Roma out of their homes and into an abandoned factory of the squalid Cuprom complex, where they attempted to rebuild their lives.

The episode was just the latest chapter in the long tragedy of the Roma in the lands now comprising Romania. For hundreds of years, they were effectively made into serfs. Many were tied to feudal estates, banned from moving freely from one place to another. Among the few ways they could earn an independent living was by collecting metal. Nineteenth-century visitors to Transylvania noted how Roma could often be spotted at riverbanks, sifting gold from sand; others specialised in gathering old scraps of copper and iron. After communism was established in 1947, the state attempted, often by force, to lift the Roma out of their destitution. Many were given state apartments and enlisted into unglamorous jobs, such as sweeping streets or gathering trash. When communism ended, many Roma found themselves as abandoned as anyone else. They could not afford the shift to privatised housing and few state jobs still existed to employ them. There was, however, an abundance of metal to collect. Thousands of Roma reverted back to their traditional work, selling scrap from abandoned factories to local junkyards. Even today, the metal trade is how many of Romania’s 2 million Roma make their living. Meanwhile, the group continues to be treated as second-class citizens, routinely discriminated against and stigmatised as thieves who give their country a bad reputation abroad.

Part of the Cuprom complex at Baia Mare. Photograph: Alex Clapp

All this makes Boldor even more confounding to many of his countrymen. For he bears little similarity to the stereotypes they associate with Roma. He does not live in a shanty. He does not speak Romani. He has a bank account and a car – a handful of both, in fact. He is closer to their type of “Romanian”. And, listening to Boldor speaking about the Roma, he can sound as contemptuous as any of his countrymen. Of course they had to be pushed into the old Cuprom building, he told me. Otherwise they would continue to toss their trash all over Baia Mare and their kids would keep roaming out into its streets and getting run over by cars.

One of Boldor’s irritations was the do-gooding European NGOs, which, he said, show up in Baia Mare to help the Roma, spend some cash, collect some praise and then move on to the next project. Nothing ever seemed to change for the Roma themselves. In Boldor’s view, the only way to pull the Roma out of poverty was one that no one was ever going to be honest enough to discuss: someone would have to be willing to go in, pull them away from their traditions, and show them how to become “Romanians”. It was an intervention, he thought, that would first require showing the Roma what success for one of their own looked like. And, for Boldor, that required making money.

Over a lunch of pork belly prepared by his mother, Boldor told me of how his plan to restore Baia Mare’s former industrial grandeur all began with a conversation in late 2011, not long after he returned from London. He was talking to a grizzled old local who had helped manage Baia Mare’s mines under Ceaușescu. Yes, Cuprom was decaying, the miner said to Boldor, but there were still riches here. Even in its heyday, Cuprom’s refining technology had been rudimentary. For every tonne of gold or copper successfully furnished at the complex, another tonne of valuable earth had been tossed, its gold or copper minerals too fine-grained to extract from the surrounding dirt. And because Cuprom had been built on a swamp, the only way to expand the complex over the decades of its prosperity had been to fill in marshland with hectares of this backfill. So, at least, the old miner told Boldor.

The wreck of Cuprom, in other words, was teetering atop an entire landscape of buried treasure. Crazier still, no one had ever bothered to go collect it. Flecked with tiny pieces of copper and gold, Cuprom’s industrial residue was not just valuable. It was everywhere. Communism had already done all the heavy lifting. The metal had been dug out, transported, floated, smelted, crushed, milled and concentrated; all that remained was to gather, process, and sell the leftovers, then pocket the profit.

Everyone else looked at Cuprom and saw a ruin. Daniel Boldor saw an El Dorado. For as long as anyone in Transylvania could remember, the local Roma had made their living selling scrap metal. Now Boldor pointed them to the real prize: sludge.

* * *

On the international market, it was known as “metal concentrate” – and, while it resembled dirt, it was highly coveted in countries such as China and South Korea, which needed vast quantities of copper and gold for their burgeoning electronics and construction industries. In 2013, Boldor began hiring the Roma who had been shunted into the old Cuprom factory to dig the metal concentrate out for him. He acquired a huge warehouse to store it. He bought industrial scales to weigh it. He brought in trucks to move it. And he oversaw the creation of a new company, Exiteco SRL, that could export it to secondhand metal traders around the world.

The secondhand metal trade is well organised and profitable, but the corner that specialises in metal concentrate is murkier – “a weird, bizarre world,” as one Canadian mining executive told me. In essence, the business is a massive scavenger hunt. Traders scour the globe for metals that are potentially too valuable to throw away, but require considerable expense and time to make actually valuable. Often, the obstacles are less logistical than bureaucratic. An African dictator was toppled half a century ago. Who is entitled to the concentrates of his defunct mining empire? A Soviet Republic ceased to exist in 1991. Who owns the mining residue of its state factories? A legendary communist mining complex lies in ruins. Who can ascertain that what is left behind possesses any actual value?

To help fund his operations, Boldor raised cash from a group of British cousins of Indian heritage based in Harrow, who he had met during his construction days. In late 2011, three of them flew to Baia Mare. They told me that Boldor walked them through the city’s mineralogy museum, which showcases its 1,000-year mining tradition. Later, they said, Boldor drove them to the mountains where they inspected piles of industrial residue, and he arranged meetings with local officials who pledged to ease Romania’s tangled bureaucracy for them. “Daniel was very nice, very polite,” one of the investors told me. “He told us this was going to change everything,” another told me. (The cousins asked not to be named in this article.)

After they flew back to London, the cousins decided to invest in Boldor’s venture. They told me they also invited their extended family to take out loans in order to contribute additional sums. According to the cousins, they wired Boldor a total of £250,000 via Western Union and MoneyGram, which they say he asked for in increments of less than £5,000 and deposited into accounts belonging to him, his brothers and their wives. (Boldor denies this account, and claims all the money invested in his companies has come from his own funds and those of a business partner, an American lawyer named Richard Vasey. However, the cousins provided me with documents that show they made these deposits between 2011 and 2013.)

The smelting chimney looming over the Cuprom site in Baia Mare. Photograph: Alexander Clapp

In early 2013, the digging began in earnest. One day last year, Boldor’s youngest brother, Peter, drove me in his truck to Cuprom’s towering, defunct smelter chimney. Around it, the ground was scarred with trenches where teams of Roma had dug out thousands of tonnes of decades-old sludge. Once the material was weighed, bagged and sealed, it was then trucked 500 miles south-east to Constanța, the Black Sea’s biggest port, where it was subject to random chemical tests in preparation for export.

That summer, Boldor began selling to international clients. Over the next three years, a dozen container ships laden with copper- and zinc-flecked sludge left from Constanța for China. Many others – ships bearing sludge flecked with silver and sludge flecked with gold – went to South Korea, Singapore, Macau and South Africa. In the United Arab Emirates, a tonne of Boldor’s copper sludge touched down via cargo plane from Bucharest; still more material made it to Belgium, Vietnam and the US. All buyers received accredited lab results certifying the immense mineral value of what they were buying. By 2017, according to his own financial records, Boldor had shipped some 10m tonnes of concentrates out of Baia Mare – and received more than €6m in payment.

As in a fable, Boldor seemed to have miraculously wound the clock back. Romanians from Baia Mare were once again sending Transylvania’s legendary mineral wealth out across the world. Colectând pentru Boldor – “collecting for Boldor” – had restored Cuprom to a hive of human activity. In turn the Roma grew increasingly loyal to Boldor, a man who had elevated their ancestral work to corporate scale and global reach. When I tried to speak to some of the Roma at Cuprom, they were wary of talking without Boldor’s permission. “Daniel has made us very happy,” the wife of one of Boldor’s workmen told me, adding that her husband wasn’t available to talk, having recently relocated to Dubai. Many other Roma also grew relatively wealthy. “Danny Boldor is a respected businessman,” Loredana Mihaly, the head of a Romanian NGO that advocates for Roma rights in Baia Mare, told me. “The Roma believe in Daniel like a hero. To them, he’s a wise man with money,” said Eva Kim, his former secretary. “They were all making a ton of cash off this thing,” said Mircea Doncu, a secondhand metal trader based in Bucharest.

Boldor himself put it like this: “You see a Gypsy in this town driving a BMW?” he said. “You can thank me.”

* * *

It wasn’t until November 2016 that authorities began to notice that something strange was going on in Baia Mare. That month, an anonymous email landed in the inbox of Florin Guran, a waste inspector for Romania’s National Environmental Guard. The message linked to a story in the South China Morning Post, which reported that more than 100 shipping containers sent from Romania almost a year earlier were now sitting unclaimed in China. The containers were supposed to contain copper concentrate. But when port authorities in Shanghai performed a customs check on one container, what they found seemed less like copper concentrate and more like construction rubble.

Now the shipment sat on a quay in Hong Kong. It was colossal – more than 2,700 tonnes packed into 123 shipping containers – and, in addition to allegedly being worthless, Chinese authorities claimed that it contained toxic quantities of arsenic and cadmium, two chemicals often found in mining waste. As officers at the National Environmental Guard began to look into the case, combing through customs declarations and export documents, the same name kept coming up: Daniel Boldor. “The office gathered around their computers and dug deeper,” Guran told me. “The only thing I can say is that – when we realised that it was Gypsies who had pulled off such a shipment – we were speechless. And we were immediately aware that there was more to the story.”

Guran sent the link to Teodor Niţă, a 46-year-old state prosecutor with a bullish reputation in Romania’s crime-fighting circles. Built like a bouncer, with black hair cropped at right angles, Niţă has made his name by investigating the darker corners of the waste trade, which has become increasingly big business in Romania over the past decade. “When you think of the garbage trade, think the drug trade,” Niţă told me last year in his office in Constanța. Waste, like drugs, is a shadowy, globalised, multi-billion dollar industry. But waste, unlike drugs, moves from the world’s richest countries to its poorest – and can often be legally trafficked when it is demonstrated to contain no hazardous materials.

Since 2018, when China stopped accepting foreign garbage, rich European countries have scrambled to find other recipients for their millions of tonnes of plastic waste. Romania, one of the continent’s worst recyclers, now also bears the distinction of being one of its greatest importers of garbage. To dump a tonne of plastic in a landfill in the UK costs local authorities nearly £100; disposing of it in Romania, even after the price of transportation, costs around half that amount. This trade is by and large legal. But shipping medical or industrial trash – including old mining residue – is illegal.

Niţă estimates that his network of informants and port police has, in the last decade, prevented at least 2,000 containers of illegal waste from being offloaded in Romania by private garbage brokers – companies that are contracted by governments to move and dispose of their citizens’ garbage – operating from Italy to the UK. Reflecting on how richer European nations have turned Romania into the continent’s trash can, Niţă can sound a lot like Boldor. “The rest of Europe thinks of us as a second-rate country,” he told me. (“We are the puppets of Europe with no balls to say no,” Boldor told me via email not long ago.)

A Communist-era mosaic at the Cuprom complex in Baia Mare. Photograph: Alex Clapp

As Niţă dug into the case, he found that, on the face of it, Boldor appeared to be an entrepreneur of unimpeachable credibility. His clients – metal traders from Thailand to Tacoma – had trusted him enough to front him hundreds of thousands of euros. His operations were licensed in the US. His cash moved through respectable European banks. His websites boasted glossy photos of copper ore that could have been used to illustrate a geology textbook. He had hired impeccably qualified engineers from Panama and Turkey.

But none of this, Niţă believed, was the real story. In early 2018, he journeyed to Baia Mare with 10 environmental police officers to take a closer look at Boldor’s operation. According to Niţă, weeks spent scouring around Baia Mare revealed not a multimillion-dollar export business, but a skeletal, ad hoc operation. Boldor seemed to possess no machinery, no registered employees and no permits to run his businesses.

Nor, in Niţă’s view, did Boldor actually own most of the dirt he had shipped across the world. True, Boldor had told his investors that he had clinched the rights to Cuprom’s mining residue; but the material he was directing the Roma to collect – and which he was upselling for tens of thousands of euros – was, said Niţă, dirt owned by the Romanian state, unearthed from every conceivable corner of Baia Mare. Investigators told me that they spoke to Roma who said they had collected material indiscriminately: sludge from riverbanks, stones from railway lines, asphalt from parking lots. “They showed us rocks on the side of the road,” said Cosmin Tanase, one of the police officers who worked with Niţă.

And this dirt – which Boldor was allegedly selling as “concentrate” – was worthless. What divides “industrial waste” from “metal concentrate” is the percentage of metal in any given sample. Two industry sources explained to me that while most industrial waste possesses about 4% metal, the percentage in metal concentrate is at least 30. If the mining residue at Cuprom was typical industrial waste, then in order to become true metal concentrate it would have been necessary to undertake a lengthy process of refining and crushing, then mixing this material within considerable quantities of pure gold or copper. Only then could the magic 30% threshold be crossed. Otherwise, Roy Pitchford, a Zimbabwean mining executive, told me, Boldor was “just sending waste”.

Last year, a pair of Romanian policemen drove me south of Constanța along a stretch of coastal highway on the edge of the Black Sea. After 20 minutes we stopped at a windy promontory, where the officers pointed to a great pile of dirty white canvas bags. This, they told me, was the “copper concentrate” Boldor had shipped to China six years earlier. A year after it had arrived, Chinese authorities had ordered it shipped back to Romania. Some of the bags had been slashed open, releasing a stream of black rubble littered with chunks of pavement the size of dinner plates and the odd rusty beer cap.

By mid-2018, Niţă had reached a conclusion about Boldor’s operation: it was, in his view, an ingenious and epic achievement. It was also, he believed, wildly illegal. Boldor had flipped Romania’s trash conundrum on its head. Rather than a foreign waste broker flooding the country with garbage, here was a Romanian national who had made serious money by shipping thousands of tonnes of useless Transylvanian rubble to the other side of the planet.

“I’m not amazed by anything any more,” Niţă told me in his office in Constanța. “But with Daniel Boldor even I had to stand in awe of the ingenuity. He’s a very, very smart person whose greatest skill is presenting himself as an honourable man.”

* * *

By the time Niţă had begun reaching his conclusions, Boldor had amassed a string of enemies. Among them were the British cousins, who had begun to wonder whatever became of such a promising investment. According to their account, Boldor told them that they would get their money back, but he needed another £250,000. With some reluctance, the cousins agreed. “We told ourselves that we had come too far to back out now,” one of the investors told me. “But the truth is that we didn’t want to accept the fact that we had walked straight into a trap.”

Unbeknown to the British cousins, Boldor had also been raising capital from other investors. One, a seasoned American businessman, told me that he was introduced to Boldor in 2013 through a contact in London’s oil circles. After flying to Baia Mare in 2014, he says he decided to invest more than €500,000 in Boldor’s operations. “There was a huge demand for metal ore in China at the time,” the American told me. “Every good con has to have elements of truth to it. And this did have elements of truth to it.” (Boldor denies that this businessman invested any money in his projects. Both the British cousins and the American claim to have received no money back from their investments and say that Boldor hasn’t replied to them for years.)

It wasn’t just investors who grew suspicious. So did customers. Last year, I spoke to Roberto Santos, the commercial director of a Spanish metal-processing company that purchased 112 tonnes of copper concentrate from Boldor’s company in 2015 in exchange €120,597, of which more than €90,000 was paid upfront. When the shipment arrived in the port of Bilbao, Santos found what appeared to be rubble. The shipment had allegedly been tested in a Romanian lab, where it was certified as containing 39% copper; tests conducted by Santos in Spain detected less than 2%. When Santos demanded a refund, Boldor advised that he pay for new rounds of tests, then allegedly stopped responding altogether. After a year spent unsuccessfully attempting to pin Boldor down in a Spanish court, Santos gave up. (According to Boldor, Santos Bartolome is a “scam company”, which never paid him any money, though he provided no evidence for this claim.)

The shipment that may eventually prove to be Boldor’s downfall happens to be the biggest one he ever pulled off: the 2,700 tonnes of material he sent to China in late 2015. When some of it was repatriated to Romania in 2017, scientists from the country’s most prestigious universities were sent samples and asked to analyse their contents. The scientists reached the same conclusion as China’s inspectors: the material was worthless. No amount of smelting could ever wring any profitable amount of metal from it. “It wasn’t raw material,” Ioan Carcea, a chemistry professor at Gheorghe Asachi Technical University in Iași, told me.

Bags of rubble photographed by prosecutor Teodor Niţă on his 2018 visit to Baia Mare. Photograph: Teodor Niţă

But if Boldor’s operation was a scam, as prosecutors allege, it would not have been enough to simply ship dirt and call it gold. In order to export his product abroad, it had to be tested twice. The first test required Boldor to send a sample to a lab in Transylvania. The second was done at the port of Constanța, where customs officials would randomly open a quarter of the shipment and test its contents. Niţă told me he has never been able to figure out how both tests were faked. Boldor “must have brought legitimate samples to the laboratories” for testing, he told me. But the cousins in London and the American investor told me a different story. They claimed that Boldor bought the results he needed, exchanging cash for false documents. “If Boldor didn’t have the cooperation of powerful people in Romania, this would have never happened,” said the American investor.

In June 2018, Niţă filed suit against Boldor on behalf of the prosecutor’s office of the court of Constanța. Among other things, Boldor has been accused of money laundering, customs fraud, document forgery, the collection and transport of hazardous waste and various forms of tax evasion. The charges extend far beyond his 2015 shipment to China, encompassing more than five years of alleged wrongdoing in the metal remediation industry. A judge has been considering the case since 2020 and a verdict is expected in the coming year. If found guilty, Boldor could receive up to 10 years in jail. (For now, Boldor remains free to come and go from Romania as he chooses; when I met him, he had recently returned from a business trip to Dubai.)

According to Boldor, the case amounts to an attempt to put him out of business, manufactured by corrupt investigators working on behalf of a state that does not like to see a smart Roma businessman get ahead. When you ask him about the controversy surrounding his China shipment, Boldor points to what happened to the other half. For if it really was waste, what happened next was truly strange. In 2016, after ordering half of Boldor’s dirt back to Constanța, Cosco Shipping, the Chinese state shipping company, seized the rest – more than 1,000 tonnes – and put it up for auction. Some was sold to companies in inland China; some went to Macau; some nearly arrived in Malaysia, before local inspectors intervened and prevented the ship carrying the material from docking on grounds that the shipment contained “hazardous waste”.

Why would a Chinese state shipping company, alleging Boldor’s material to be toxic, sell it across south-east Asia? Two metal traders I spoke to suggested the same theory. Boldor’s shipment hadn’t magically accrued value. But storing hundreds of cargo containers for a year had been expensive, and China was looking for a way to recoup some of its losses. Cosco Shipping did not respond to requests for comment, but if this theory is true, the irony is striking. A Chinese state shipping company had no compunction committing the same crime that the Chinese state had levelled against Boldor: knowingly selling falsified material.

* * *

In 2018, after Niţă’s investigation had been submitted to a judge, Boldor stopped sending the Roma around Cuprom to dig up dirt. Instead, he moved into real estate. Using the income he had accrued over the previous decade, he bought a large swath of the complex from a Romanian state-owned insolvency firm. Boldor now lords over nearly 20 hectares of dilapidated factories, flotation systems and chemical laboratories – and has become the uncontested owner of the millions of tonnes of dirt trapped beneath. As we drove back to Baia Mare from Fersig, Boldor beckoned grandly towards Cuprom. “Ceaușescu built it,” he said. “And now I own it.”

I asked Boldor why he decided to invest in a project that had proved so costly and frustrating to so many others. He still holds to his original story. A vast treasure lay beneath Cuprom, he told me. In the coming years he was determined to fly in technicians from China and Saudi Arabia to demonstrate on site that Cuprom’s dirt really is valuable.

The story the prosecutors were telling about him was nonsense, he said. The truth, he claimed, was that he had revealed something the authorities in his country and the EU didn’t want to become common knowledge: tremendous wealth still existed here, amid the ruins of communism. “They don’t want to catch me. They want to take me out of the game,” Boldor concluded, narrowing his eyes.

As for the hundreds of Roma who now lived in Cuprom, Boldor was no longer just their informal employer. He had become the closest thing they had to a landlord. European NGOs would no longer be allowed to show up and pretend to help them. “We will send in our own social workers,” Boldor said. The Roma would be given IDs and a cut of Boldor’s eventual profits would be put into a kindergarten for their children.

When I asked Boldor what Niţă might say about all this, he assured me that he wasn’t worried about it: for $10,000 he could have Niţă shot. “What?” he asked me blankly. “You don’t think I have $10,000?” As with so much of what Boldor says, it was difficult to tell what was real and what was bluster – and whether he himself even knew. He later told me via email that he had simply meant that he could pay Niţă off to make the case go away. “I’ve made some mistakes,” Boldor acknowledged at one point in our conversation, but when I pressed him he grew increasingly flustered, eventually asking if I wasn’t working for one of his competitors.

Via email, Boldor denied having conducted any “illegal business” in his life. He reiterated that he had not forged any documents, that his companies had all the proper paperwork, that he had not evaded paying tax or shipped any hazardous material. He claimed that he was being unfairly targeted. “Fuck [the idea] that Daniel Boldor is a Gypsy criminal and he is not allow[ed] to make money or business in this sector,” he wrote. He claimed that he had paid for feasibility studies and that a team of 30 experts from Beijing had visited Baia Mare and determined that there is metal concentrate worth $860m on his land. “I am a fucking challenger and a player and I have nothing to hide,” he wrote.

On my last day in Baia Mare, one of Boldor’s associates – a grey-haired former miner in a yellow security vest – agreed to drive me out to Cuprom one final time. We passed through a battered gate flanked by people clustered around burning piles of trash. After a few hundred metres we came to a muddy stretch of land that Boldor had staked out for a new state-of-the-art laboratory. “It’s taken Danny a long time to get here,” the miner told me. “But now he’s ready to bring it all back.” In the distance, crumbling down the wall of a defunct factory, a communist-era mosaic depicted a man striking gold with his bare fist alongside a woman draped in a lab coat clutching a chemical beaker.

Five months later, in September last year, a short story appeared on a local news website. “Investors want to give new life to Cuprom,” it announced, showing photos of Boldor posing in front of a blue helicopter, dressed in a dark blazer and blue shirt, with brown leather shoes and a fat watch. Next to him, a pair of smart-looking German investors in sunglasses smiled for the cameras, prepared to follow Boldor inside the helicopter.

Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center

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