Bulgaria is set to give its largest coal plant permission to flout new, tighter EU industrial pollution laws designed to protect people’s health.
The Industrial Emissions Directive allows national authorities in the EU to grant ‘derogations’ for industrial power plants – exemptions from binding pollution limits adopted last year by the EU. It would be the EU’s first plant to be given explicit permission to pollute over and above the tougher standards.
But the government is ignoring a court order to give people information on how it reached the decision, despite a fresh legal victory by campaigners.
People have a right to information – court confirms
A public consultation on whether to allow coal power plant Maritsa East II to bypass the new laws has now opened. However, the crucial information that would allow citizens to properly understand the dangers of the decision is being withheld by the government.
The judgment in the case brought by Bulgarian campaigning coalition Za Zemiata Access to Justice, with support from environmental lawyers ClientEarth, requires the government to release any cost-benefit analysis that justifies a coal plant being made exempt from new pollution rules.
This includes a detailed assessment of harm the plant will cause to human health and the environment if anti-pollution measures are not taken.
The legal victory, in the Sofia City Administrative Court, was scored just days after the consultation on Maritsa East II’s derogation opened but is being ignored.
ClientEarth lawyer Dominique Doyle said: “The public is being asked to feed into a major decision without being given the core facts that would enable them to do it effectively – and in spite of a definitive ruling from the court.
“There are EU-wide principles that are supposed to uphold the right to access environmental information – Bulgaria is ignoring a court judgment when the time is running out for people to have a say on matters that affect the health of the whole country.
“The government is giving coal a free ride and depriving the public of the right to formulate an informed opinion – this is precisely the reverse of how things should be.”
Meglena Antonova, campaigner for Greenpeace Bulgaria, said: “Here, we have a situation where some of the EU’s most conspicuous industrial polluters are being given a chance to duck out of complying with important new laws when they’re exactly the reason those laws were made in the first place.
“The impact these plants have on health and the environment is being treated like a trade secret – but they concern everybody, and this information must be released. The court has ruled unambiguously on this – the authorities must release the cost-benefit analysis for Maritsa East II.”
Health dangers posed by dirty power plants
New data suggest that Bulgaria has the highest concentrations of dangerous particulate pollution in Europe, at the cost of up to 30% of its GDP each year. The research, by EU health experts HEAL, also estimates that the number of premature deaths attributed to pollution from Bulgaria’s power plants could be slashed by almost 80% if the new pollution standards are implemented.
The authors recommend explicitly against derogations being granted.
Bulgaria’s environment minister announced plans in October to allow multiple ageing coal plants to carry on polluting far above new EU legal limits, which are designed to protect people from toxic substances released when coal is burnt.
All derogations, if granted, could be subject to legal challenge.
Broader problems with Bulgarian coal
There is widespread scepticism about the financial viability of Bulgaria’s troubled coal industry – Maritsa East II, the plant being consulted on, would require several hundred million euros in government aid to keep afloat over the next few years – because it cannot afford its own emissions allowances.
Bulgaria is under fire over its poor environmental credentials, notably the controversies in its energy sector. The coal industry has a track record of dangerous conditions for workers, wage problems, systematised over-pollution and disproportionate financial help from the state.
Bulgaria also tried to block the new pollution rules from coming into force earlier this year, joining Poland in a legal challenge against them.
Ms Dominique Doyle is an Australian-qualified lawyer.