Media reaction: 13 May 2022

EU Court rules Bulgaria broke pollution law – time to get rid of coal, say NGOs

  • The European Court of Justice (CJEU) confirmed yesterday that Bulgaria breached EU rules on air pollution because of failure to address sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution from super-polluting coal plants.
  • The law in question is the Ambient Air Quality Directive.
  • Environmental organisations have hailed the ruling, saying that it should be a wake-up call for the Bulgarian authorities.

The court confirmed that people in the entire southeastern region of the country have lived in a highly polluting environment for years, due to illegal levels of SO2 pollution emanating from four large coal plants in the region – Brikel, and the three plants that make up the Maritsa Iztok complex. In 2021, after the Court started considering this case, a fifth coal plant was reopened in the region after years of inactivity.

SO2 pollution contributes to serious respiratory disorders and other major health issues, especially for vulnerable groups including children, elderly people and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Meglena Antonova, campaigner at Greenpeace Bulgaria, said: “The decision is a breath of fresh air for the people living in the region. Toxic sulphur dioxide pollution caused by coal burning has to end. The government is propping up old coal-fired power plants but the price is being paid by public health and taxpayers’ money. In the current context, it’s clear that fossil fuels are not the answer – we should turn to people-powered renewables that let us breathe clean air and be energy independent.”

Justine Schoenfeld-Quinn, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “Court rulings like this one are powerful. The law is there to protect people and this ruling – as well as regulatory changes like the stricter EU law on industrial pollution – should serve as a wake-up call for the Bulgarian government. Ministers should see the writing on the wall and start transitioning the country away from coal once and for all.”

Following this judgment, if the Bulgarian government doesn't take steps to remedy the situation, the EU Commission can start a new procedure to demand the imposition of fines.


Notes to editors:

ClientEarth and Greenpeace Bulgaria have long fought in the courts for better air quality and a move beyond coal in Bulgaria, including legal action against Maritsa East 2. They have most recently written about to the EU Commission about Bulgaria’s untackled SO2 pollution.

Analysis of NASA data by Greenpeace India and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air ranks Bulgaria as the top EU country for SO2 pollution - number 21 in the world overall.

The overhaul of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) is set to give people suffering health conditions due to illegal industrial pollution the right to sue for compensation. This would be a major consideration for companies that routinely over-pollute, and for the governments that regulate them.

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.