Aarhus Convention landmark decision opens door to environmental justice in Bulgaria
Until now, Bulgarians had no right to resist illegally authorized building projects, polluting factories or power stations that threatened their health. The restricted access to justice prevented environmental organizations from stopping irreversible loss of biodiversity in Natura 2000 sites where development projects were realized in breach of numerous EU environmental directives. This became especially evident during Bulgaria’s construction boom, a trademark of the country during the years of transition to democracy, when Bulgaria’s forests and protected areas were built up by unscrupulous developers.
“This is all history now, we have reached a turning point in urban and territorial planning”, said Vesselina Kavrakova, WWF Bulgaria Country Manager. “Going forward, every citizen of Bulgaria can invoke the Aarhus Convention and appeal a building permit or a territorial plan authorized by Bulgarian authorities in violation of environmental law, regardless of whether they are an immediate neighbour of the development or not”.
“We are finally becoming a country where urban and territorial development will be carried out after extensive public consultations and for the benefit of citizens. We all have the right to live in a greener and safer environment”, Kavrakova said.
The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee oversees the implementation of environmental justice under the Aarhus Convention. Signed in 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus, the Aarhus Convention focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities. The Convention grants the public rights regarding access to information, public participation and access to justice, in governmental decision-making processes on matters concerning the local, national and transboundary environment.
The Bulgarian case-law on the access to justice and the relevant findings of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee are expected to be influential in the development of the Access to justice Directive of the European Commission.
About Bulgaria’s Spatial Planning ActBulgaria’s Spatial Planning Act limits the right of appeal to owners or immediate neighbours. The appeal of General spatial plans in particular is prohibited. This legislative inadequacy made possible for local and state authorities to authorize projects and spatial plans without taking into account EU environmental directives. Over the years, this has led to the construction of developments in protected areas which not only lead to the irreversible loss of biodiversity but also are dangerous for Bulgarian citizens, such as the building of a cabin lift in Rila National Park on a landslide.
Furthermore, leaving the outcome of planning permits in the hands of municipalities and investors alone has created conditions for corruption.
In 2011, WWF and the coalition of environmental NGOs “For the Nature” turned to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee.
Following the findings of the Committee, WWF and “For the Nature Coalition" will send a request to President Rosen Plevneliev to veto and return to the National Assembly for review the Spatial Planning Act in order to make it compliant with the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on access to justice.
Examples of projects authorized in violation of environmental law where access to justice was restricted by law
- The Bansko ski zone in Pirin National Park – The spatial plan for the ski area was approved by Bansko Municipality despite evidence of violations of the concession contract and Management plan of the national park, which were confirmed by the Ministry of Environment and Water in 2010.
- The cabin lift from Pionerska hut to Seven Rila Lakes in Rila National Park – The building permit was issued by Sapareva Banya municipality without carrying out an environment impact assessment and built on a landslide.
- The General spatial plan of Tsarevo municipality in Strandja Nature Park - Approved by the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works in 2008 with serious breaches of the EU Natura 2000 Directives.
- General plan of the Municipality of Varna - Approved by the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works with procedural violations.
- The Ski resort Super Perelik in the Rhodope Mountains – Planning permit granted by Smolyan Municipality without carrying out a Strategic environmental assessment.
- The hotel complex in the former protected area Kamchiiski Piasatsi – The construction of "Kamchiya Park" was approved by Dolni Chiflik Municipality without carrying out an environment impact assessment and the protected area of Kamchiiski Piasatsi was deliberately closed down.
- The hotel complex in Coral – Development on the site of former camp ground "Coral" was approved by Tsarevo Municipality with significant procedural violations.
- Hotel complexes in the protected area "Irakli" - Building permits for several developments were issued by Nessebar Municipality without carrying out an environment impact assessment.