Press release: 1 June 2021

Bulgarian citizens turn to court over Sofia’s illegal air quality

A group of six Bulgarian citizens have taken legal action against Sofia’s authorities over illegal and harmful levels of air pollution in the capital.

The challenge, brought in partnership with environmental organisation Za Zemiata, is supported by environmental law charity ClientEarth.

The groups argue that the new air quality plan for Sofia will not reduce levels of air pollution in the city to within the legal limits by 2024, as promised by the Sofia municipality. The citizens claim that the authorities’ failure to effectively address illegal levels of air pollution is a violation of their right to breathe clean air.

According to the groups, the plan also fails to clearly outline the measures the city will take to reduce air pollution in the shortest time possible, as required by Bulgarian and EU law.

Ivaylo Hlebarov from Za Zemiata said: “The residents of Sofia have been living with dirty air for more than 10 years and have been waiting for a bold plan that finally addresses this health crisis and reduces the thousands of premature deaths linked to polluted air. Unfortunately, the Municipality of Sofia has once again failed to deliver this.

“Public resources should be used to tackle illegal levels of air pollution quickly and effectively, not wasted on obscure measures, with no tangible way to assess whether they actually work.”

Bulgarian courts have so far refused to recognise the right of citizens and organisations to go to court and appeal air quality plans, as, according to the courts, the effectiveness of these plans does not affect these groups’ rights.

However, the groups say that refusing access to the courts breaches European law. In May 2020, the European Commission started an infringement procedure against Bulgaria’s barriers to access to justice matters.

ClientEarth lawyer Agnieszka Warso-Buchanan said: “When authorities fail to uphold their duty to protect people’s health, the law should enable people to exercise their right to hold authorities to account. But Bulgarian courts have time and again refused people this right. It’s time that this changes”.

The groups must now wait to see whether they will be granted the right to go to court. If they are, a date for a hearing will then be set.


Notes to editors:

For the last 10 years, Sofia has failed to meet the legal air quality standards for fine dust particles (PM10).

Over the past decade, air pollution has gradually improved in Sofia. However, in 2020, more than half of the capital’s monitoring stations recorded illegal levels of PM10 more than 35 times over the course of the year. According to European Environment Agency, in 2018 as much as 65% of Bulgaria’s urban population was exposed to concentrations of PM10, which were above EU standards.

Annual levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) have not been recorded in the city for the past three years due to insufficient data. The last known breach of the annual legal limit for PM2.5 was recorded in 2017.

Among the citizens who have joined the legal challenge is a man suffering from acute asthma, a family with young children who live near a highly congested road, and an amateur female runner.

About Za Zemiata

Za Zemiata is an environmental campaign coalition comprised of Za Zemiata (Friends of the Earth Bulgaria), Greenpeace Bulgaria and Bankwatch.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.