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Media release: 8 June 2021
In a rare move, the Bulgarian Supreme Court is asking the Court of Justice of the European Union to weigh in on a case about one of the biggest coal plants in the Balkans.
At the end of 2018, the Bulgarian government granted state-owned Maritsa East 2 a derogation, which gave it indefinite permission to emit sulphur dioxide (SO2) almost double EU limits, putting the health of residents in the surrounding towns in direct danger.
In a case brought by Bulgarian environmental organisations Greenpeace Bulgaria and Za Zemiata and Greek organisation The Green Tank, with support from ClientEarth, environmental lawyers asked the Bulgarian court to revisit the decision, given the plant’s outsized impact on the region’s air pollution.
Air pollution from coal plants blanket the nearby town of Galabovo, which charts the highest levels of SO2 pollution in the EU. Bulgaria is the only country in the EU still breaching the bloc’s SO2 limits.
The Bulgarian Supreme Court is asking the top EU court whether the breach of local air quality limits in Galabovo must be considered when allowing Maritsa East 2 to emit almost double the legal limit of SO2.
Greenpeace Bulgaria and Za Zemiata lawyer Regina Stoilova said: “This is a great development: Bulgarian courts rarely ask EU courts to weigh in on a case. The EU court will now decide whether the Bulgarian government has to consider the breach of air quality limits when granting permission to sidestep the rules. The plant’s impact on human health and the environment is devastating and its owners have to clean it up.”
The European Commission is already taking serious action to clamp down on Bulgaria’s ongoing and major breach of SO2 limits. In 2019, the Commission referred Bulgaria to the Court of Justice of the European Union on the issue.
ClientEarth lawyer Dominique Doyle said: “Instead of focusing on a plan that would rid the country of toxic sulphur dioxide, the Bulgarian government is doubling down on its efforts to keep old polluting plants alive. Pollution from Maritsa East 2 is now at the centre of not one but two procedures in Brussels. It can no longer be ignored.”
The Court of Justice of the European Union is expected to rule on the case in the next year.
Sulphur dioxide presents health threats in its pure state, but health impacts also arise when SO2 reacts with other air pollutants to produce fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Exposure to SO2 and PM2.5 has been linked to a host of health problems including respiratory problems, heart and lung disease and even dementia.
In 2017, the European Union adopted strict SO2 emissions limits for coal-fired power stations to protect people’s health, but the Bulgarian government opposed the new rules and continues to permit power stations to emit more than is allowed under European Union law.
After Maritsa East 2 was granted a derogation in 2018, an additional two plants – Contour Global Maritsa East 3 and AES Maritsa East 1 – were issued draft permits to bypass EU rules in 2020. Another plant in the same region, Brikel, has submitted a similar application.
ClientEarth, Greenpeace Bulgaria and Za Zemiata have long fought for better air quality and a move beyond coal in Bulgaria. They have supported a range of legal actions over Maritsa East 2’s permit to pollute, unlawful State aid, waste burning in coal plants and access to justice for individuals and NGOs to challenge air quality plans. They also help to defend those who are set to lose their homes to coal expansion.
Ms Dominique Doyle is an Australian-qualified lawyer.
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.