coal plant and rusty road sign

Court challenge as Bulgarian authorities skip pollution test for power plant

Environmental lawyers are launching legal action after Bulgaria’s environment authorities paved the way for a coal plant in the EU’s most polluted region to burn petrochemicals, biomass and waste alongside lignite – a dirty, highly inefficient coal.

The regional environment authority of Stara Zagora declared that there was no need to perform the usual Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) because there was no likely environmental harm.

Coal plant Brikel is in Galabovo, in south-central Bulgaria, right next to the notorious Maritsa East coal complex. The town charts the EU’s highest levels of dangerous sulphur dioxide, known to cause respiratory issues.

Genady Kondarev of Za Zemiata Access to Justice, which is bringing the challenge, said: “Travelling with colleagues through the Galabovo region, we see and choke on suffocating smoke and dust from Brikel. It’s the same whenever we go. For the environment agency to ignore the risk of increasing this pollution is outrageous but it’s not wholly unbelievable – the authorities are under a lot of pressure from the coal industry. However, they must resist it. People’s health comes first and Bulgaria’s future lies in cleaner energy.”

Why check the damage?

An EIA would assess the environmental and health risk of Brikel’s activity, combined with the activity of surrounding plants. Without one, the health and environmental risks remain uncharted.

Dominique Doyle, lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The regional environment authorities risk legitimising a blatant health risk. Legally, you cannot look at a development like this without reference to what else is in the area – and in this case, that’s several other highly polluting coal plants and factories, which are already posing serious threats to people in the town, and the neighbouring nature sites.

“The air quality in the town may already be illegally poor but that makes it all the more important to assess the risk and prevent it getting any worse. This is the only opportunity for a proper assessment to be carried out that would establish the level of danger posed to people and nature.”

Pollution in Galabovo has already been noted by the Supreme Administrative Court, when it denied Brikel an expansion earlier this year, citing significant air pollution in Galabovo caused by Brikel and surrounding plants. Yet the regional environment authority paid no regard to this when making its decision to skip this essential assessment.

Za Zemiata Access to Justice, a coalition comprising several Bulgarian NGOs including Za Zemiata and Greenpeace Bulgaria, has filed a challenge with the Administrative Court of Stara Zagora. The first hearing is expected to happen in October.

The fundamental issues in Bulgaria’s coal industry have come to light in recent months through a series of reports and legal challenges on illegal pollution and inappropriate subsidies. There is increasing pressure on the Bulgarian authorities to plan for a life beyond coal for its coal-dependent regions as the industry starts to look increasingly defunct.

For an overview of Bulgaria’s endemic coal problem, watch Al Jazeera’s short report.

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Dominique Doyle