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Press release: 18 December 2019
A Bulgarian court has ruled that notorious coal plant Brikel cannot burn potentially dangerous waste without a thorough assessment of the environmental impact.
The judgment comes amid a surge of local resistance to waste-burning in coal plants – and is a major blow for Bulgarian coal operators, as they search for ways to keep the industry alive.
Under European Union and Bulgarian law, the environmental and health risks of a plant’s activity have to be checked via an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). But Bulgaria’s environment authorities decided to skip this assessment, while allowing ageing Brikel power plant to burn waste and biomass alongside coal.
Without this assessment, the risks related to the burning of waste and biomass remained uncharted. Lawyers representing Za Zemiata Access to Justice, working with ClientEarth, launched legal action to make sure that this essential assessment be conducted.
ClientEarth lawyer Dominique Doyle said: “Bulgaria’s coal plants have an abysmal track record of illegal pollution and shaky permitting. It’s crucial that a proper assessment establishing the level of danger posed to people and nature be carried out. This is a major win for the local population who have been fighting for their concerns to be heard and their rights recognised.”
Meglena Antonova, campaigner for Greenpeace Bulgaria, said: “Whether it’s burning coal or burning waste – neither approach has a future. We have won this court battle – but what we need is a national plan to transition beyond coal, including improving energy efficiency, introducing modern storage solutions and producing energy from renewable sources.
“We cannot be lured by false alternatives like burning waste. The government is wasting valuable time instead of introducing and developing existing alternatives.”
Brikel’s coal-burning activities mean it already emits harmful pollutants, which are disastrous for the health of nearby residents. The 55-year-old plant is in Galabovo, south-central Bulgaria, and sits inside the infamous Maritsa East coal complex.
The town has the EU’s highest levels of dangerous sulphur dioxide, known to cause respiratory issues. The plant has a shameful record of environmental non-compliance and experiences frequent operational issues due to its age and poor technical condition.
Burning unknown waste in a plant of this condition and with this record raises serious concerns for people in Galabovo and the environment.
The Administrative Court of Stara Zagora has now urged the environment authorities to consider undertaking an assessment of the environment and health risk of burning waste.
The assessment will evaluate the impact of chemicals released from waste burning, such as dioxins, which are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.
The decision concludes months of protest by local people and environmental organisations. Public dissatisfaction with the increasing number of coal-fired power plants is mounting. The waste-burning saga was the last straw for the local people in Galabovo, who have seen the power plant site turn into a dumping ground.
Burning waste is the latest fad of the Bulgarian coal industry. The content of the waste is unknown to the public and the impacts on health and environment unclear.
Bulgaria has some of the dirtiest air in Europe. It has the highest concentrations of urban particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) of all EU member states. The European Environment Agency estimates that three out of four Bulgarian citizens are exposed to concentrations of pollution above EU standards.
Pollution in Galabovo has already been noted by the Supreme Administrative Court, when it denied Brikel an expansion, citing significant air pollution in Galabovo caused by Brikel and surrounding plants.
Za Zemiata Access to Justice, working with ClientEarth, has also launched a court case after the Balkans’ largest coal plant was awarded indefinite permission to expose thousands of people to dangerous levels of mercury and sulphur dioxide.
ClientEarth has supported a range of legal actions in Bulgaria over unlawful state aid and misuse of state aid to the coal industry, and in relation to illegal mining.
For an overview of Bulgaria’s endemic coal problem, watch Al Jazeera’s short report.
ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.
Za Zemiata Access to Justice is an environmental campaigning and legal coalition, formed of members of Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, Greenpeace Bulgaria, and Bankwatch CEE.