By energy lawyers Dominique Doyle (ClientEarth) and Regina Stoilova (Za Zemiata Access to Justice)
In Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora region, the Balkans’ biggest coal plant chugs steadily away, part of a giant industrial complex.
Maritsa East 2’s reputation is as a provider of jobs and stability. The cloud of pollution that hangs over the region – and the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over its future – go largely undiscussed.
The plant’s impact on human health and nature is devastating. And yet its owners have no plan to clean it up, even as laws on toxic emissions are steadily tightened.
On top of this, the plant is suffering the consequences of its own financial mismanagement, even with major support from the Bulgarian government. As coal loses economic viability in Europe and is phased out, the plant will stutter and any economic stability it afforded its workers – and the region – will be gone.
The Bulgarian government is keeping its head in the sand. And if no one is planning a life beyond coal, what will be left for Stara Zagora?
The EU’s last sulphur dioxide stronghold
Stara Zagora is in the conspicuous position of being the only area in the EU breaching the bloc’s limits on sulphur dioxide (SO2) limits. And what is causing these extreme levels of SO2 pollution? Coal power.
Sulphur dioxide should be a distant memory. Acid rain, caused by SO2, feels like it should have come to an end with the 90s, as concerted efforts were made to curtail it. However, fresh analysis of NASA data by Greenpeace puts Bulgaria at number 19 in the world’s most SO2-polluted countries – the only EU country to make the top 20.
The hotspot responsible for this? The Maritsa East industrial complex in Stara Zagora.
The Maritsa East 2 plant, the complex’s largest, is a major SO2 source. The emissions from this plant alone put owner BEH in the top 10 most harmful coal companies in the EU – competing with heavyweights like RWE, which own multiple giant plants across the bloc.
Just last month, the European Commission finally decided to refer Bulgaria to the EU Court of Justice for this black mark on the EU’s air quality record – pointing to four large thermal power plants as the culprit.
What’s the problem with SO2?
As well as creating major problems for nature, like acid rain, SO2 pollution has huge and well-documented implications for people’s health. The substance contributes to serious respiratory conditions and other major health issues, especially for vulnerable groups such as children, elderly people and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
When SO2 is released from a coal plant it reacts with other chemicals in the air to create ‘particulate matter’ (PM) – an extremely dangerous fine dust that seeps into the bloodstream and threatens health.
For each megawatt hour of electricity Maritsa East 2 produces, it racks up an estimated €93 in health costs – compared to an average of €53 for all EU power plants. For example, health costs attributable to Maritsa East 2 stacked up to almost €1 billion in 2016 – another burden on Bulgaria’s budget, and another major financial point against the plant.
Yet the plant’s misconceived image as an economic powerhouse seems to eclipse any of these grave concerns.
Rather than curbing its emissions, the Bulgarian government has just given Maritsa East 2 a free pass to pollute to record levels, indefinitely. This allows it to emit over four times the specified EU limit for toxic substances SO2 and mercury.
The other three plants in the area, including 50-year-old Brikel, look set to receive similar exemptions to the rules.
Enough is enough – our challenge
When authorities gave Maritsa East 2 permission to pollute above the limits, Bulgarian campaigning coalition Za Zemiata Access to Justice took legal steps, with the support of ClientEarth. Both groups argue that the harm caused by this decision would far outweigh the cost of installing the appropriate technology to capture toxic emissions.
The images below show the annual spread of particulate pollution caused by the SO2 from the plant if it were allowed to function outside of the limits – compared to if it reduced its emissions in line with EU recommendations.
Experts have determined that with this permission to pollute, the plant’s emissions would expose an estimated 1.3 million people to SO2 concentrations that exceed WHO guidelines – even before considering other emissions sources in the region. This exposure carries a significant risk of acute respiratory symptoms; it is an unjustifiable health risk.
Over a 10-year period, the number of premature deaths caused by emissions from the plant would run into the thousands and occurrences of respiratory illness into the tens of thousands.
Although the exemption to the rules is shocking, it is also not surprising. The Bulgarian government, which owns the plant, has been helping it avoid its EU environmental obligations for many years. Each year, the plant is supported by the government to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros to buy its carbon credits, an attempt to prevent it from sinking into even larger debt and effectively financing the climate crisis.
Harm beyond borders – a new legal frontier?
We know the risks the people living in the vicinity are exposed to. But that harm is not restricted to that region – nor indeed to Bulgaria. National boundaries are political only and pollution does not need a passport to roam far beyond them. Experts have estimated that one quarter of the projected health impacts will take place in Bulgaria, with three quarters taking place in neighbouring countries – as the above images show.
Bulgaria has a duty to inform Greece and its citizens where this kind of pollution travels across the border. With that in mind, environmental experts and citizens in Greece have been putting pressure on Bulgaria over the lack of input they had into the exemption being granted. They rightly believe their neighbour nation should have offered them a say in whether Maritsa East 2 was granted permission to pollute so much more than the law should allow.
The Green Tank has been leading this campaign. Together with a concerned individual, they have joined Za Zemiata Access to Justice’s legal case to present evidence of the harm that Maritsa East 2 will cause to people’s health in northern Greece if it is allowed to pollute above the limits.
Just as we share the climate, we all share the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we cultivate. Coal plants, whose high stacks are specifically designed to spread pollution far and wide, affect these and the problem does not stop at borders. While experts are well aware that coal is responsible for immense transboundary pollution, the courts have not had much experience grappling with this issue. With this case, we may finally see a breakthrough in the scope of legal action against large, polluting coal plants.
As the law closes in on unjustifiable levels of pollution, and economic strain comes to bear on coal, plants are starting to struggle for survival. And what comes after that?
This is why people in Bulgaria – like so many regions in Europe – need to demand their government plans for what happens after coal.
ClientEarth is an international charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and planet.
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.