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Press release: 2 March 2020
Environmental lawyers at ClientEarth, Greenpeace Bulgaria and Za Zemiata have taken action after the Bulgarian government secretly allowed three ageing coal power plants to burn unclassified waste, flouting EU and national law.
Two of the plants have been allowed to burn an astounding 10,000 times more waste than is allowed without an appropriate permit update, it was found.
The lawyers argue that by skipping formal permitting procedures and leaving the public in the dark about the risks, the government has breached national and EU law.
Working with national campaigners at Greenpeace Bulgaria and Za Zemiata, they are bringing a legal complaint to the European Commission to compel EU authorities to investigate and order the illegal waste incineration to stop.
Burning waste in old coal plants exposes workers, locals and the surrounding landscape to a range of health and environmental threats. Emissions from waste incineration can include heavy metals, dioxins and furans, all hazardous substances which may be present in the waste gases, water or ash.
ClientEarth lawyer Dominique Doyle said: “Burning waste without the correct filters is a major hazard for those living around the plants. Residents living in the surrounding areas can smell something different in the air, with some reporting smelling burnt plastics through the night.
“It is alarming that such aged plants are being allowed to burn waste and even worse that it was done without following the law.
“This is the latest example of the very lax authority exerted by the Bulgarian government over coal plant operators.”
The news comes as Bulgarian prosecutors ordered a review of unregulated waste incineration in four notorious coal plants regarding the storage and incineration of hazardous waste without the relevant permits.
As well as cutting costs, burning waste is also a creative way to dodge new strict pollution laws for burning coal. If coal plants also burn waste, they can avoid installing expensive pollution abatement equipment and operators now claim that they are entitled to reduce the amount they have to pay for CO2 allowances.
Meglena Antonova, campaigner for Greenpeace Bulgaria, said: “Burning waste is a dangerous way to artificially lengthen the life of a dying coal fleet.
“Bulgarian authorities need to step up and show that they are committed to respecting people’s health and their right to breathe clean air.
“This is especially relevant at a time when Bulgaria is in dire need of solid plans for phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable alternatives.”
Locals in affected municipalities have started making their voices heard to demand a stop to the incineration of waste. Grassroots movements have emerged and there have been several protests around the plants to contest the incineration of waste.
Antonova added: “To date, people have stayed quiet on coal issues – but we are seeing action and protest. The people of Bulgaria will not stand by and let coal plants burning waste jeopardise their health any longer.”
Read our op-ed in Euractiv on this issue.
In 2018 and 2019, the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment gave permission to three coal plants – Brikel, Republika Pernik and Bobov Dol – to burn large quantities of unknown waste. This permission was given in confidential letters in the case of Bobov Dol and Brikel, and verbally in the case of Republika Pernik. Bobov Dol and Brikel were allowed to burn 500,000 tonnes of waste over a six-month period, an astounding 10,000 times more than is allowed without an appropriate permit update under the Industrial Emissions Directive. There has been no corresponding update to the plants’ permits and no public consultation. The public has been denied access to the content of the letters, despite repeated requests formulated by Za Zemiata Access to Justice.
An investigation into the origin of the waste alleged it was coming from Italy. Bulgarian prosecutors have since ordered a review of unregulated waste incineration in four notorious coal plants, including Bobov Dol, Brikel and Republika Pernik.
Emissions from waste incineration may contain dioxins and furans, which are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.
Bulgarian politicians remain largely pro-coal. In January, the Bulgarian National Assembly passed a resolution to protect coal power capacity in Bulgaria, “regardless of the European Commission says on the matter.”
Bulgaria’s Environment Minister Neno Dimov was arrested and sacked in January. He is charged with deliberate mismanagement and suspected of letting Pernik’s town water supply be siphoned off for industrial use. In addition to the charges related to the water crisis, the Prosecution is also looking into evidence in relation to possible waste imports.
ClientEarth has also made a submission to the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought by Italian citizens against their government’s systematic failure to address waste-related environmental pollution.
Bulgaria has some of the dirtiest air in Europe. The country had the highest PM2.5 concentrations of all EU28 member states in urban areas over a three-year average. Last year, the European Commission decided to refer Bulgaria to the Court of Justice of the EU over poor air quality, specifically for persisting non-compliance with the limit values for SO2. In 2017, exceedances related to the annual limit value have also been registered related to PM10.
For an overview of Bulgaria’s endemic coal problem, watch Al Jazeera’s short report.
About Za Zemiata Access to Justice
Za Zemiata Access to Justice is an environmental campaigning and legal coalition, formed of members of Friends of the Earth Bulgaria and Greenpeace Bulgaria.
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.