The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Environment

Society » ENVIRONMENT | Author: Irina Samokovska |January 6, 2012, Friday // 16:34

Shale Gas Drilling Inches Forward Amid Protests

In end-May, US energy giant Chevron landed a concession for shale gas exploration in Bulgaria with a whopping offer of EUR 30 M. According to the estimates of the bidders, the deposit near Novi Pazar in northeastern Bulgaria contains between 300 billion and 1 trillion cubic meters of shale gas.

The deal was strongly welcomed by Bulgarian Minister of Economy, Energy and Tourism Traicho Traikov, who remarked that Bulgaria's shale gas deposits should be able to guarantee its domestic consumption for the next 1000 years. He said that the exploration works usually take 2-3 years, plus 2-3 years to construct the extraction infrastructure.

His optimism, however, failed to resonate with environmentalists, who launched a vocal protest campaign which has continued into 2012. Environmental activists and local residents expressed fears that the technique, which involves pumping unspecified chemicals into the ground at high pressure - so-called hydraulic fracturing - might pollute soils and groundwater in Dobrudzha, one of the most fertile regions in Bulgaria.

Shale gas extraction has been a controversial technique on a global scale, after a number of wells in the US - the country that pioneered it - leaked, causing massive damage to drinking water.

In July, France became the first country in the world to impose an all-out ban on it, after protests from local residents. In early December, an extensive study by the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that highly toxic and cancer-causing fluids from shale gas drilling most likely contaminated shallow groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming. The findings contradicted industry claims that hydraulic fracturing was a proven and safe technology used for over 60 years.

Meanwhile, protesters on Bulgaria called for a moratorium on shale gas, insisting that the gas exploration permit had been granted to Chevron without an environmental impact assessment or a Natura 2000 compatibility assessment, without any public debates on the issue and without allowing the population to become acquainted with the risks.

Shale gas opponents also questioned allegations of the government that shale gas would bring the country the much anticipated energy independence. Anti-shale protests have been taking place on a monthly basis in Sofia and other major cities and the campaigns have relied extensively on social networks to rally supporters.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who threatened to sign a shale gas contract "out of spite" unless the nagging stopped, issued assurances that extraction works would not start if the method was shown to be harmful to the environment and public health. His vows were repeatedly echoed by Environment Minister Nona Karadzhova and Energy Minister Traicho Traikov.

Both Borisov and Karadhzova insisted that all shale gas protests involved a group of 5-6 people who claimed to represent civil society, but, according to the Prime Minister, were actually marching to a certain party's orders. On November 23, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) tabled in Parliament a draft bill envisaging a ban on shale gas exploration and production in the country. Other parliamentary opponents of shale gas were the marginal conservative party Order, Law and Justice (RZS) and the nationalist Ataka party

Bulgarian Bats vs The Expendables 2

In mid-November, Bulgarian environmentalists expressed their discontent with the planned shooting of "The Expendables 2" scenes in the country's Devetashka cave.

The shooting of the action movie which stars Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris among others may harm one of the most important natural habitats of bats in Europe, the environmentalists warned.

The experts said that the bats were preparing for hibernation and any disturbance could have fatal consequences. The permit for the shooting was given by the regional environmental inspectorate in the Northern Bulgarian town of Pleven.

In end-November, a Bulgarian zoologist said that the bat population in the Devetashka cave had been reduced to ? due to the filming of the Holywood blockbuster. "The shooting of the movie harms the bat habitat - through the placement of props, the felling of vegetation, as well as the disturbance caused by the presence of large numbers of people and the noise they make," said Nikolay Simov from the Center for Bat Studies and Protection at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. An inspection conducted after the shooting session showed that there were 8000 bats in the cave, compared to last year's 30 000.

On December 11, it was revealed that the bats inside the Devetashka cave had come out of hibernation much earlier than usual and it was unclear how many would survive until spring. The conclusion was made by the Center for Bat Studies and Protection after a check of the cave.

Experts said that all colonies were active at a time when they ought to be in hibernation due to the noise and due to being disturbed during the filming of "The Expendables 2." Several dead bats were found inside the cave, the cause of the death most likely being starvation and exhaustion. It was confirmed that the filming had been against the law because the existing rules only allowed for the cave to be used for purposes of tourism and scientific research.

On December 12, the European Commission sent a letter to the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters demanding information on the case with the dead bats. The information was reported by Nikolay Simov, a Bulgarian zoologist from the Center for Bat Studies and Protection at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, BAS, as cited by the Bulgaria, "Trud" (Labor) daily.

NGOs were said to be planning to sue to Ministry over the permission for the filming of "The Expendables 2" in the cave and the passivity of the institution.

On December 20, Bulgarian environmental organization Green Balkans protested a report by the Ministry of Environment stating that the shooting of the Hollywood blockbuster had not harmed the bats residing in the Devetashka Cave.

The probe was triggered by a tip-off of eco activists who said that the excessive noise and the light used during the shooting process had seriously disturbed the animals.

After the check, experts of the Ministry concluded that the majority of bats were in hibernation and the dead ones were within the mortality rate norm. The Green Balkans reminded that a number of international wildlife protection organizations, such as UNEP/ЕUROBATS, BatLife Europe, Bat Conservation Trust, the European Speleological Federation, and CEEweb for biodiversity, had also pressed the case at the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment.

Tsar Kiro's Tortoises

On November 14, a total of 28 tortoises seized by the prosecution during a search of Kiril Rashkov's (aka Roma boss Tsar Kiro) properties in the southern Bulgarian village of Katunitsa were placed at the Rescue Center for Wild Animals in Stara Zagora. The land-based reptiles of the Testudo hermanni and Testudo graeca species were in good clinical condition.

After the tortoises were received, they underwent veterinary examinations and were marked and accommodated at the Rescue Center's hospital, where they would stay at least until spring, when they would wake up from their slumber.

Environmental workers from the Green Balkans Conservation Center expressed hopes that the trial against the Roma clan boss would be over by then, so that the tortoises, which count as evidence in the case, could be set free in an appropriate environment.

Tortoises are protected under Bulgaria's Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Penal Code. Both species are globally threatened and listed in Red List of International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN-2004).

On November 9, Bulgarian police officers and archaeologists started inspecting Rashkov's properties in Katunitsa using metal detectors, as it was believed that his clan had buried vast amounts of gold there. Kiril Rashkov, aka Tsar Kiro, and his clan triggered massive tensions across Bulgaria in end-September after the murder of a teenager in Katunitsa. On December 19, a Bulgarian court approved a plea agreement between Sophia Hristova, daughter-in-law of Kiril Rashkov, and the prosecution, under which she got a one year suspended sentence with three years of probation and a fine of BGN 5000 for illegally keeping 33 tortoises.

The 34-year-old woman pleaded guilty to charges of illegally keeping 33 tortoises in the period May 27, 2011 - November 16, 2011 in the Izgorqlata Vodentisa ("The Burnt Mill") locality on the territory of the southern Bulgarian village of Katunitsa.

3 of the 33 land-dwelling reptiles were spur-thighed tortoises, which are included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, while the other 30 were Hermann's tortoises, which are protected under Bulgaria's Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The tortoises were seized by the state and were eventually taken to the the Gea Chelonia Foundation Tortoise Center located in the village of Banya.

A Reluctant Krumovgrad Gearing Up for Gold Mining Project

In end-November, Toronto-based mining company Dundee Precious Metals eventually won the go-ahead for its plans for a big open-pit gold mine near the town of Krumovgrad. The approval was given by Environment Minister Nona Karadzhova amid the fierce opposition of the community. To defend her decision, Karadzhova made it clear she was ready to do everything to promote Dundee Precious Metals' controversial plan for a gold mine in the country, even if it meant risking her life.

"I am ready to move to Krumovgrad and live there," Nona Karadzhova declared on December 17 in an attempt to assuage fears, voiced both by the openly hostile local community and the municipality, over the mine's impact on the environment and the people's health.

She said that mine would bring much-needed wealth to the area and the country as a whole, while the water-based technology offered by the Canadian company was the safest one could possibly get.

Karadzhova's approval, given after three returns of the environmental impact assessment (EIA), stirred tensions in the region. Bulgaria's environmental organizations are now challenging the decision at the Supreme Administrative Court.

The people living in the poor Bulgarian town of Krumovgrad have been relentless in their protests against plans by Canadian mining company Dundee Precious Metals to open a big open-pit gold mine, spurred by the worldwide gold rush. The people from Krumovgrad and the nearby villages in the picturesque Rhodope mountains, predominantly ethnic Turks and Pomaks, are worried that the planned waste facility would be just one kilometer away from the town and one kilometer away from the river.

The Bulgarian cabinet gave on a 30-year concession the gold mine near the town of Krumovgrad to Dundee Precious Metals in February 2011. The gold mine is located in the Krumovgrad municipality on lands of the villages of Guliya, Dazhdovnik, Zvanarka, Kaklitsa, Malko Kamnyane, Ovchari and Sarnak.

In exchange for the 30-year concession, the company is making the commitment to invest over BGN 114 M and extract an average of 850 tons a year of ore. The Krumovgrad municipality is to receive 30% of the concession payments.

The Toronto-based mining company has repeatedly assured that Krumovgrad gold project will be beneficial for Bulgaria and the local community. In 2010, the Canadian company had to abandon plans for a gold mine near Bulgaria's Krumovgrad using cyanide technology after a Bulgarian court ruled against the cyanide gold extraction at the other mine operated by one Dundee's subsidiaries in the country, Chelopech Mining.

Climate Change Issues

Bulgaria May Head Toward Subtropical Climate

At the beginning of April, it was revealed that average temperatures in Bulgaria's towns and cities had risen by between 1.2 and 2.5 degrees Celsius in the past 2 decades, while a 30% drop had been registered in average rainfall.

Furthermore, as much as 13% of the country's forest territory was shown to have disappeared over the same period, while snow covers had started melting 40% faster, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency said, citing the "Coalition for Climate – Bulgaria" environmental organization.

Bulgaria's climate would change from moderate to subtropical by 2050, the organization claimed, basing its forecast on data from the country's Academy of Sciences. Shortly before the study was released, a report requested by the local Ministry of Environment stated that Sofia's average temperatures could increase to reach those of the Greek city of Thessalon?ki by 2035.

Under the worst case scenario described in the report, temperatures could increase by 5 degrees Celsius, while average rainfalls could drop by over 15% in the course of the next 24 years in Bulgaria. In end-October, Georgi Stefanov from the international environment protection organization WWF said that Bulgaria was likely to witness a drastic increase in the number of wildfires, which could jeopardize the forests and arable land.

A higher risk of floods was also expected, he warned, as ice caps would be melting intensively. Stefanov spoke after taking part in a working group meeting on Bulgaria's National Climate Change Action Plan 2013-2020.  By end-January 2012, Bulgaria is supposed to have a plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the period.

On November 17, Professor Valentin Kazandzhiev from the National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) announced that Bulgaria's biggest grain-growing region could move from Dobrudja in the northeast to the fields near Sofia and Kyustendil in 60 years' time. The reason for the dramatic shift would be climate change, he explained. He argued that the already tangible climatic anomalies were characterized by a clear warming trend, a shortening of the winter season and sudden onsets of cold weather.

The scientist predicted that Northeast Bulgaria would see extremes of up to 45°C and -30°C by 2020. He also said that the annual average temperature in Dobrudja would grow by 1-1.2 °C. Kazandzhiev explained that extreme temperatures would deprive crops of moisture, thereby damaging wheat production.

The researcher suggested that Dobrudja would lose its popularity as the most suitable place for growing wheat and would become better suited for growing perennials like apples, apricots, pears, plums and peaches. Kazandhiev also recommended that Bulgaria take advantage of the experience of North European countries like Norway, where wheat is grown under irrigation conditions.

On November 17, following a protracted debate, Bulgaria's Parliament approved at first reading legislation that would allow carbon capture in the country. Bulgarian MPs did not reach a common position about the utility and the environmental friendliness of the technique, with the pro- and contra-lines dividing parliamentary groups.

Some MPs from the ruling center-right GERB party voted for the legislation, while others voiced a vocal opposition or abstained. A similar situation was present in the rightist Blue Coalition group, while opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms generally voted against.

At the end, the draft law was adopted at first reading in plenary, although it had not been approved by the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment.

Some MPs have supported the views of environmentalists, who doubt the safety of the carbon capture technique, in which emissions from the industry are captured in a liquefied state and kept underground. Others have said that the method is sufficiently friendly for the environment, and in the future will present a cost-effective alternative to buying emissions quotas.

No More Free Plastic Bags

On October 01, Bulgarians waved goodbye to free small nylon shopping bags. In March 2011, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted a "plastic bag tax" of BGN 0.15 on the smallest and most popular plastic bags in order to force the large retail chains to stop distributing them for free. The provision was to enter into force in October. "The aim is to curb the use of such nylon bags," a representative of the Bulgarian Environmental Ministry explained.

Prior to that, all 264 municipal mayors in Bulgaria staged a "day without plastic bags" on July 29, 2011. According to the Environment Ministry, some 3.2 billion plastic bags are used in Bulgaria every year.  A huge number of them can be seen blown around by the wind or carried around Bulgarian cities by stray dogs.

Bulgaria's 2011 Antarctic Expedition

The first members of the 20th Bulgarian expedition to Antarctica set out early November with an ambitious agenda focusing on the effects of global warming on local plant and animal life.

The Bulgarian group leaving for the Antarctic consists of 25 members led by Prof. Pimpirev, director of the Antarctic Studies unit at the Bulgarian Academy of Science (BAS).

The first 9-strong team departed from Bulgaria November 2 and the last group will leave on January 05. "We will push forward a Bulgarian project for climate change research - how it affects sea mammals and Antarctic lichens," said Prof. Pimpirev.

The researcher added that another scientific initiative would involve monitoring the radiation environment on the frozen continent. The expedition will also conduct DNA tests. The BAS researchers will also collaborate with international colleagues on a project studying the impact of global warming on frozen Antarctic soils.

On another note, Bulgarian researchers hope to construct a new Christian Orthodox chapel named after Bulgarian patron saint, St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila). The already existing Bulgarian chapel is only the second Eastern Orthodox temple on the Antarctic continent, but BAS scientists have the intention to place a new, bigger one at a better location.

Four wind turbines will be built with funding from private sponsors, while other sponsors will provide accumulators for storing energy. On October 28, outgoing President Georgi Parvanov bid luck to the Antarctic explorers.

Addressing the scientists, Parvanov emphasized that the state was "indebted" to the expedition as the financial support it could provide had been reduced to a minimum, despite its strategic importance.

The President explained that the team of scientists had been reduced by a half as a result of slashed funding. Under an already established tradition, the President met with the group of researchers prior to their departure and handed the Bulgarian flag to the leader, Professor Pimpirev, in a wish for good luck in their work.

On November 15, Bulgaria's Foreign Ministry reported that a joint rescue operation conducted by Brazil and Chile involving navy ships, an aircraft and a helicopter, had helped to save Yordan Yordanov, commander of the Bulgarian Antarctic base, who had suffered a heart attack.

Yordanov, who had been admitted to the "Magelan" hospital in Punta Arenas after spending two days at a Chilean military base, told journalists that he was feeling better and that he would spend the next 6-8 days there before the doctors decided if he had to return to Bulgaria.

The base commander got a heart attack a few hours before arriving on Livingstone Island on November 11. The accident happened on the Brazilian Brazilian Navy ship "Admiral Maximiliano" as the crew was about to be taken to the island via helicopters.

He was flown to Punta Arenas on the evening of November 13 on a small Chilean twin engine aircraft in a flight which lasted five hours and a half.

In a December 23 interview, Professor Pimpirev, who will leave with the last batch of researchers on January 05, said that the expedition would be studying the impact of global warming on seals. The research would be conducted on a budget of less than BGN 300 000, way below the financial resources of other countries' teams, despite the fact that some of them do not have an Antarctic base, he said.

The geology professor explained that the Bulgarian project was the first of its kind in this part of the continent and involved taking skin samples from seals to conduct DNA tests. He added that the team of researchers also planned to build a new Christian Orthodox chapel with funding provided by the Religious Denominations at the Council of Ministers. The unit would be built with prefabricated elements bought from Argentina.

The Bulgarian group was also hoping to be able to mount wind turbines which would make the St. Kliment Ohridski Base on Livingston Island energy independent and would also help to reduce environmental pollution.

The Director of the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute voiced hopes that the next Bulgarian team to set off for the Antarctic would be able to afford an Internet connection which was too costly for the group at that stage.

Unlike other Antarctic Bases, which also have TV, Bulgarian researchers only have a satellite phone to keep in touch.

Illegal Ski Runways Turn Legal

Bulgarian Eco Activists, Investors Clash over Rila Mountain

On March 11, the National Council on Biodiversity postpones the decision to include the so-called Rila-buffer zone in Bulgaria's Rila Mountain in the European eco network NATURA 2000 over the failure to reach consensus.

All the time during the meeting at the Environment Ministry, demonstrators, both supporters and opponents of expanding NATURA, were chanting slogans under the building's windows. The Rila-buffer zone had its borders changed several times by the Environment Ministry. The environmentalists have accused the Ministry of attempting to remove from the zone attractive land plots over investment intentions of several wealthy Bulgarians.

The Council decided to create a work group of NGO representatives and experts from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Environment Ministry to re-examine all proposals and reach maximum agreement combining needed protection of species and business interests in the region.

The participants of the meeting also decided to expand and create new NATURA zones for the protection of birds to fulfill EU requirements and stop the infringement procedure opened by Brussels against Bulgaria over its failure to comply with bird protection mandates.

The eco activists, who remained on the street after the meeting was over, insisted on including as protected areas the entire buffer zones around the Rila National Parks. Their opponents spoke against the expansion of the zone, saying they wanted an end to the eco racketeering in the country committed by several "self-proclaimed" activists and opportunities to implement reasonable and eco-sound investment projects.

On April 04, pro-business demonstrators, holding signs, managed to form a human fence and stop representatives of the European Commission who were checking construction violations in Bulgaria's National "Pirin Park."

The EC was notified by Bulgarian environmentalists outraged by plans for an 8-fold increase in the area occupied by ski runs, 4-fold increase in the area occupied by ski lifts, the construction of 2 new winter resorts above the towns of Razlog and Dobrinishte, and the expansion of Bansko resort.

Citizens of Razlog, Dobrinishte and Bansko, who are in favor of expanding the ski zone, organized a 300-strong rally on the same day.  They gathered at the entrance of the Bansko resort, holding signs saying: "Putting People First," "No to Eco-Terrorism," etc.

The participants rallied against the constant checks and infringement procedures by the EC, which are triggered by local environmentalists' complaints. The mayors of several local municipalities and local officials also attended the demonstration.

On April 05, angry environmentalists complained that the EC delegation sent to inspect suspected breaches of environmental legislation in Bulgaria had taken a ride on an "illegal" lift instead of looking for irregularities.

A delegation from DG Environment was sent to Bulgaria to review complaints by eco-organizations about the construction of runways in the Rila and Pirin mountains - both National Parks included in the Natura 2000 network - which the organizations claim are illegal. It was revealed that the delegation had found nothing irregular in the lift from the town of Sapareva Banya to the Seven Rila Lakes - a facility environmentalists claimed existed in total breach of the law.

The activists, united in the For the Nature network, were furious that the EC delegation had taken a ride on that specific lift accompanied by the manager of the Rila Sport firm, which owns the lift.

"The Eurocrats got on the illegal lift and took a ride to the Seven Lakes; upon returning they stated that they could see no breaches of European legislation and that they are considering withdrawing the infringement procedure against Bulgaria," stated representatives of the Citizens for Rila organization.

Eco-activists insisted that the lift had been build without an adequate environmental impact assessment and a permit to cut down the forest.

Apart from that, they also said that a clearing of the forest running parallel to the lift track had curiously coincided with one of the planned ski tracks of the Panichishte ski resort they were opposing.

The EC delegation was headed by Jean-Fran?ois Brakeland, director for Compliance Promotion, Governance and Legal Issues at DG Environment. The environmentalists organized a protest on Wednesday in front of the EC mission in downtown Sofia, under the motto "Eurocrats Snub EU Legislation in Rila and Ride on a Lift of the Mob."

At the same time, over half of Bulgaria's population was revealed to be breathing in fine dust particles in concentrations exceeding European norms. The environmental survey of the European Environment Agency (EEA) was carried out for the third time in Bulgaria. According to data from 2006, Bulgarians saw forest felling as a key problem.

In 2008, three out of four respondents singled out this issue as the most pressing, with more than 50% of the respondents voicing fears over the illegal construction activities and the over-construction in Bulgarian mountains and along the Black Sea coast.

"In 2008, forests were a hot topic because of the land swaps. The crisis reigned in the construction boom and now this is not seen as such a serious problem", Konstantin Ivanov from WWF told journalists.

Both in 2008 and in 2011, nearly 80% of the polled supported the activities of environmental organizations against construction works in protected areas.

The newly revived project for the construction of hundreds of kilometers of ski tracks in Pirin and the arguments surrounding the so-called Rila-buffer zone, where investors want to develop large-scale resorts, were probably among the reasons why most of the respondents opposed the construction of new hotels and ski facilities in high mountain areas.

In end-June, Members of the European Parliament's Petitions Committee arrived in Bulgaria on a two-day fact-finding mission to discuss the situation of sites in Suhodol, Rila and the Rhodope Mountains that have been the subject of petitions.

The main topics of the talks were Sofia's waste depot and Natura 2000 infringements in Rila and the Rhodope Mountains. The delegation met with Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, Environment Minister Nona Karadzhova, Ombudsman Konstantin Penchev and Yordan Bakalov, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Religious Denominations, Citizens' Complaints and Petitions.

The MEPs also held on-site meetings with representatives of the non-governmental sector and environmentalists who have started petitions.

At the same time, Bulgarian environmentalists vowed to see eco-minister Nona Karadzhova depart from the post after she announced that cabinet would take measures to legalize the illegal facilities in Bulgaria's top ski resort Bansko.

The controversial lifts and runways were found to overstep the area given for exploitation to the Yulen company, which manages the Bansko ski zone, in an area that is protected both as part of Natura 2000 and as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"Yulen has in fact broken into territory it should not have been," Karadzhova confessed after a series of checks on the territory had established that Yulen had illegally used some 250 acres of protected forest. Despite that, Karadzhova stated that the government had no way of changing the situation because the terms of the concession contracts could not be changed under Bulgarian legislation.

The Environment Minister further argued that cabinet would otherwise have to pull down the facilities, which she said Economy Minister Traicho Traikov and Sports Minister Svilen Neykov would be against. Karadzhova went on to say that the center-right GERB cabinet would make the necessary amendments to make those facilities legal by expanding the territory given to Yulen. "Destroying facilities will mean bringing down the whole of Bansko for 5-6 years, which is just crazy," she insisted.

On June 30, riot police and gendarmerie dispersed a spontaneous environmentalist rally that blocked one of the major crossroads in Bulgaria's capital Sofia Thursday night.

About 100 environmentalists blocked the crossing of the Vasil Levski Blvd and the Patriarch Evtimiy Blvd in Sofia in protest of the government's intention to legalize a ski runways in the Pirin National Park that were obtained by the Yulen company.

The protesters insisted that the state should renounce any contracts with Yulen, confiscate all constructed properties, and recultivate the affected section of the Pirin Mountain, which is part of the NATURA 2000 protected areas network and the UNESCO World Heritage.

After they were chased away by riot police, the protesters headed for the square in front of the Sofia University main building.

Environmental NGO Scores Long-Awaited Court Victory on Irakli

On September 14, a Bulgarian NGO defeated in court an offshore investor planning to build a resort complex in the Irakli-Emine protected area on the Black Sea coast.

The Administrative Court in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas ruled that the investment approval granted at the end of 2008 by the Burgas Regional Environment and Waters Inspectorate to offshore investor Swiss Properties was illegal.

The suit against the construction of the resort complex was filed by "Let's Save Irakli", an NGO of environmentalists, activists, and professionals, who engaged in three-year struggle, including by staging protest rallies in Irakli and in Sofia.

Back in 2008, the Burgas environmental authorities granted an investment permit to Swiss Properties for the construction of a resort complex called Riverside Village on the Vaya River, near the Irakli beach not far from Cape Emine.

The decision, which spurred the creation of the "Let's Save Irakli" NGO, was approved with the argument that it would not damage the nature in the Emine-Irakli area, which is included in the NATURA 2000 network.

The ruling of the Burgas Administrative Court can be appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court in Sofia but the environmentalist NGO hailed as a great success, thanking the Danube-Carpathian Program of the World Wildlife Fund, the Bulgarian wildlife association "Balkani", and supportive lawyers for their expert role.

"This is a huge step not only in the protection of a unique place such as Irakli but also the protecting the civic position of thousands of Bulgarians against an offshore company registered in the Swiss canton of Zug, and which has been violating Bulgarian legislation systematically," "Let's Save Irakli" said in a statement. The group has been active in the protection of the Irakli beach area with its unique nature for the past 6 years.

3 Dead Dolphins, No Foul Play

In September, three dead dolphins were washed ashore on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, one of them alleged to have had multiple machine gun shot wounds.

Senior government officials, however, were quick to officially refute claims of an increased death rate among Black Sea dolphins.

"We cannot speak of a higher frequency of Black Sea dolphin deaths," Detelina Ivanova, expert at the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters said. "In the past years, we have actually seen a larger number of dead dolphins washed ashore," she added, explaining that a total of 11 dead dolphins had already been found along the Bulgarian coast thus year.

She said that 11 dolphins had been washed ashore in 2010, while in 2009 their number had been 20. Plamen Zahariev, head of Bulgaria's Fishery and Aqua Cultures Agency, declared that the dolphins had died of natural death.

On September 21, Agriculture Minister Miroslav Naydenov confirmed that there was evidence pointing towards potential foul play in the death of the three dolphins.

After meeting experts, the Minister explained that the dolphins had most probably died of  "natural causes".  He noted that 100 000 to 200 000 dolphins inhabited Bulgaria's Black Sea region.

"Honest Bulgarian fishermen would never hurt a dolphin," Naydenov pointed out. Despite that, he said that legal amendments were being considered envisaging tip-offs to the prosecution whenever a dolphin washed ashore was suspected to have been murdered.

Bulgaria's Deputy Environment Minister, Evdokiya Maneva, reminded on Tuesday that a total of 25 dolphins had been found dead on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast in 2011, while the number in 2010 had been 53, which she said was indirect evidence that the recently publicized death cases had been the result of natural causes.

Harmful Air, Mismanaged Waste Disposal, Unsustainable Capital

On January 13, a report of the European Environment Agency showed that about 57% of the Bulgarian population was exposed to levels of fine dust exceeding the norm.The long-standing problem was triggered by outdated public transportation in major cities, the increasing number of polluting automobiles, and the use of coal for heating in winter.

Eco Minister, Nona Karadzhova said it was the responsibility of the local municipalities to restrict traffic and conduct emissions inspections. According to the EU Directive on clean air, each country has the right to exceed the norm no more than 35 times a year at a certain measurement point.

In all points in Bulgaria, the levels were higher than the limit and Bulgaria was risking an infringement procedure, Karadzova warned. The municipalities with harmful levels of dust are required to have a list of measures for coping with the problem.

At the end of 2009, the European Commission refused to extend the deadline for Bulgaria to fulfill its clean air obligations after it became clear that over 30 municipalities had failed to establish such measures.

The EC deadline was end-March 2011, but not a single municipality out of a total of 30 had presented such a program, Karadzhova said. 20 out of the 27 EU Member States have a similar problem and some have been taken to the European Court in Luxemburg.

In mid-January, Bulgaria was revealed to be last in Europe according to waste management criteria. Environment Minister Nona Karadzhova cited data from the "European Environment - Trends and Prospects 2010" report showing that Bulgaria's performance in waste management was worst in comparison with 32 countries - EU member states and countries from the Western Balkans.

In Bulgaria, 90% of the waste is being deposited without being recycled, while Switzerland has reached the impressive 0%, the survey showed.

On the other hand, Bulgaria was ranked among the best in the implementation of biodiversity policies and the inclusion of new Natura 2000 territories. At the beginning of October, the European Commission dropped plans to pursue court action against Bulgaria for failing to properly implement EU waste law, citing progress in preparations for a recycling plant.

Although even now there are about 90,000 garbage bales dumped and rotting near Sofia, the municipality is already working on the first stage of the project - the construction of a new landfill near the village of Yana.

The trial against Bulgaria in the European Court of Justice has been suspended because the country has managed to deal partly with the shortcomings, but it will remain on the EC watch list, the environment ministry specified.

More than two years ago. Brussels launched an infringement procedure on the issue and the country faced the risk of being forced to pay hefty fines, worth millions of euros.

The case concerned inadequate waste disposal in the capital Sofia, which should have had a network of waste disposal installations in place by the time of its accession on 1 January 2007. Even now a solution remains some years away.

Sofia's failure to improve its waste management infrastructure was one of the six issues on which the European Commission launched infringement procedures against Bulgaria at the end of October 2007.

As Bulgaria failed to address the European executive's concerns, the matter was referred to the European Court of Justice, the highest judiciary authority in the bloc, which the country joined in January, 2007.

Finding a solution to Sofia ongoing waste problems was a politically sensitive issue in the months before the parliamentary elections two years ago, which mayor of the capital Boyko Borisov won by a large margin.

The previous Socialist-led government officially declared a state of emergency in Sofia at the beginning of April over lack of adequate waste removal, saying that the garbage problems threatened national security and citing health and environmental concerns.

The then-opposition party of Sofia mayor GERB, which won the elections by a large margin and formed a government, dismissed this as pre-election muscle pumping.

The garbage problems came after the people, living close to Sofia operational landfill at Suhodol, started staging rallies, demanding the closing of the dumpsite on the western outskirts of Bulgaria's capital over health and environmental concerns.

The dumpsite was reopened at the beginning of December 2007 after the environment ministry backed the controversial option to prevent a looming garbage crisis in the capital.

Suhodol residents forced Sofia authorities to introduce crisis management in July 2005 after blockading the landfill. The protests left the streets in the capital littered with garbage, posing a serious risk to human health and the environment.

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Tags: The Bulgaria 2011 Review, environment

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