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EU countries fail to minimize pollution from large combustion plants

EU countries fail cut emissions most toxic lignite-fired plants

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August 18, 2021

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August 18, 2021

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The deadline for European Union member states to minimize pollution from large combustion plants has passed, but they are “still far from achieving” the standards imposed by the Industrial Emissions Directive, EEB revealed. Many governments and lignite plants have waited for the last minute of the four-year period, opted for the highest legally permissible levels and used the possibility of exemptions, the analysis shows. Germany turned out to be causing the biggest unnecessary health costs in Europe and that it is the worst in reporting.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) warned of a “massive bill on people’s health and pockets” from allowing big industrial units that use lignite to stretch the rules from the Industrial Emissions Directive. Data that the network of civic environmentalist organizations from 35 countries compiled show most of the large combustion plants – LCPs from the category have waited until the very last minute to implement pollution-control technologies.

The four-year period to comply with the so-called LCP BREF (the second part of the acronym stands for best available techniques or BAT reference document) for minimizing pollutant emissions has expired on August 17. EEB said EU countries are “still far from achieving what is required by the directive.”

The LCP BREF foresees emission ranges for the worst pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter (microscopic dust also known as PM) and mercury, that need to be reflected in the permit limits. Whereas the lowest and less dangerous levels have been considered economically and technically viable by the industry already over four years ago, EEB’s research results show that permitting authorities and operators have, most of the time, gone for the highest legally permissible levels.

Four years of unnecessary pollution

“Unnecessary pollution” was released throughout the period as authorities and lignite-fired plants in many countries delayed implementation for as long as possible, the report underscores. Furthermore, in some cases, complacent public authorities have not yet updated the permits, allowing plants to emit beyond EU pollution limits, and have systematically granted derogations to allow the installations to emit more than allowed.

Most countries are failing to disclose crucial information about the real environmental performance of the units on the LCP list

Derogations or exceptions are foreseen in the Industrial Emissions Directive, but in many countries they have become the norm, EEB said. Most countries are failing to disclose crucial information about the real environmental performance of LCPs while many are not even meeting the minimum transparency requirements and are breaching reporting deadlines.

Thermal power systems and other big plants burning lignite and coal are the worst climate offenders and the largest source of SO2 and mercury emissions in Europe, and one of the main sources of NOx and heavy metals. Their health impacts are estimated at more than 16,150 premature deaths, about 7,600 cases of chronic bronchitis and over 4.8 million lost working days each year in the EU and Western Balkans.

Germany has worst track record

EEB said Germany’s unnecessary health costs over the last four years reached EUR 12.4 billion, placing the country at the top of the list. Next are Poland (EUR 10.8 billion) and the Czech Republic (EUR 8.2 billion). Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, all located in the region tracked by Balkan Green Energy News, took the next three spots at the chart with EUR 4.3 billion, EUR 3.9 billion and EUR 1.7 billion, respectively.

Croatia is ranked the best in reporting among EU member countries in Southeastern Europe

Germany also ranks the worst in the assessment of the quality and public availability of reporting data, together with the Netherlands. But there are issues even with the countries with the highest ratings, like Croatia, where information can be incomplete or implausible. In Southeastern Europe, only Cyprus is ranked as bad while the remaining EU member states are marked as good.

“Four years of inaction, complacency, and derogations are costing citizens millions in terms of health and environmental costs. Where are the national laws, the implementation, and the enforcement? Why have polluting activities always come before public health and environmental protection? There is no more time to waste: toxic plants must comply or close,” EEB’s Campaign Coordinator for coal combustion and mines Riccardo Nigro said.

The organization told the authorities to enforce the most ambitious BREF limits. The European Commission needs to enforce a stricter level of current standards, while also raising the ambition to safeguard public health and the environment, it added.

Lax approach in Balkans

Romania’s government is planning multi-million state aid to allow the refurbishment of plants so that they comply with BAT. CE Oltenia’s power plants Işalniţa and Craiova are still waiting to get the permit update in line with BAT.

In Slovenia, the Šoštanj 6 lignite plant is not using its state-of-the-art secondary NOx reduction equipment, according to EEB’s sources, for purely economic reasons. The operator prefers to daily fine-tune the amount of lignite to be burned in order to remain on the higher BAT limit, the report adds.

In Bulgaria, derogations are in the business plans of the operators: the Bulgarian Executive Environment Agency has been systematically granting derogations to polluting lignite power plants upon request. For poisonous mercury, the derogation is granted for an endless period, EEB said.

Extreme mercury emission data in Serbia from lignite plants unclarified

The document highlights the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) mercury emission data for Serbia as “extreme to a point that they seem implausible.” Thermal power plants Kostolac A, Kostolac B and Morava reported that 197, 409 and 615 kilograms, respectively, were released into water in 2017.

EEB says it seems implausible that three thermal power plants in Serbia emitted 1,221 kilograms of mercury into water in 2017

When alerted by EEB staff that such data were either wrong or revealing a serious issue, the EEA proceeded merely to send clarification emails to the Serbian authorities, without taking any further action to ensure the data were corrected or the pollution was prevented.

Combustion plants are responsible for 6% of mercury emissions to water within the EU. If the three units in Serbia, not a member state, would be added, the share would spike to almost 40%. It is disturbing that data reporters may simply indicate that data is based on other measurement or calculation methodology without clarifying, the report’s authors stressed.

Western Balkan countries are not part of the EU. They are under immense pressure to stop using coal, but their access to funds for a just energy transition is incomparable with the countries in the region that are members of the 27-member bloc.

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