The European Court of Justice (CJEU) has confirmed that Bulgaria breached EU rules on air pollution because it failed to address sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution from super-polluting coal plants.
The decision comes after the court said that citizens in European Union countries might sue their governments for financial compensation if illegal levels of air pollution damage their health.
The European Court of Justice has ruled that people in the entire southeastern region of Bulgaria have been living in a highly polluting environment for years due to illegal levels of SO2 pollution from four large coal plants in the area – Brikel power plant, and three plants of the Maritsa Iztok complex, ClientEarth and Greenpeace Bulgaria said in a press release.
In 2021, after the court started considering this case, a fifth coal power plant was reopened in the region after years of inactivity.
Bulgaria ranks as the top EU country for 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 in the category of SO2 pollution and number 21 in the world.
The law in question is the Ambient Air Quality Directive.
Environmental organisations welcome the ruling, saying it should be a wake-up call for the Bulgarian authorities.
SO2 pollution contributes to severe respiratory disorders and other major health issues, especially for vulnerable groups, including children, older adults, and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions, the organizations said.
Meglena Antonova, a campaigner at Greenpeace Bulgaria, said that the decision is a breath of fresh air for the people living in the region.
We should turn to people-powered renewables that let us breathe clean air and be energy independent
“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 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,” Antonova said.
According to Justine Schoenfeld-Quinn, a lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, court rulings like this 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 the coal once and for all,” said Schoenfeld-Quinn.
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.