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Mayor Fandakova, during the installation of a municipally funded low-emissions heating system, Source: Adelina Angelova via Mayor Fandakova on Facebook

Bulgarian capital announces U-turn on air pollution after losing court case

Bulgarian capital announces U-turn on air pollution after losing court case

Mayor Yodanka Fandakova announced the city would not appeal the court’s ruling, mandating it to do more about the dangerous levels of air pollution. Instead, it will focus on fixing the problem

At the start of November, the Regional Court of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, ruled against the local government in a case about the dangerous levels of air pollution in the city. This is not the highest judicial level, so the municipality had the option to appeal.

However, yesterday, Mayor Yordanka Fandakova announced the city will not appeal the court’s decision and it will implement all measures it had mandated. She continued by explaining that air quality means health quality for the citizens and this is a main priority for the local administration.

The new measures

Mayor Fandakova announced a package of new measures that Sofia will implement in the coming months while drawing attention to others that are already underway. According to her statement, in the next six months, Bulgaria’s capital will get its first low emissions zone.

The measure was actually announced at the end of October and the zone will span the centre of the city. Owners of older, more polluting vehicles will be charged with a fine of 500 euros for entering the zones on days when the air is particularly polluted.

In addition, the city will commission four studies that the court has mandated. The first one is about the effectiveness of mobility measures, particularly in terms of whether the number of passengers on public transport has grown or dropped since 2014.

The second study is about the viability of multi-level car parks on the edge of certain areas like the centre of the city. The third study is about the viability of more greenery and parks in the areas with particularly high pollution rates.

The last study is about the effectiveness of city planning in fighting air pollution. It should look into measures the city can implement in its urban master plan to reduce pollution.

Finally, the city recently launched a programme to replace low-efficiency furnaces in private homes with pellet-burning low-emissions systems, which should help to reduce pollution levels in the winter months.

Currently, the biggest polluter in the city are homes burning raw fuel like coal, wood or even old clothes. According to the mayor, the fumes contribute over 30% of the fine dust particle pollution. Since the start of the programme, 5000 households have upgraded their heating systems.

Seeing what you breathe in

Considering one of the biggest sources of pollution in Sofia are private homes burning raw fuel, the winter months are particularly dangerous when it comes to air quality. In fact, some critics have pointed out that a running joke about the winter in Bulgaria’s capital is that citizens can actually see the air they are breathing.

In fact, Sofia is the most polluted capital in the European Union, according to Statista, with an average of 27.5 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic metre of air. This is one of the main reasons the courts have ruled against the city. Additionally, according to the Municipal Councillor Boris Bonev, it would be imprudent for local authorities to waste public money defending a position contrary to the public good.

Furthermore, earlier this year, a citizen-led coalition called ‘the Association for European Integration and Human Rights’ was able to win a 10-year long court battle about air quality against Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. The ruling came this summer and it set a precedent, suggesting that municipal authorities in Sofia would have a hard time winning their own court case.

Unfortunately, officials have not spoken out about the controversial plan to build a waste-incineration plant near the city centre. In August, an activist group submitted an appeal to the Bulgarian parliament in the hopes of blocking the project, that should increase pollution levels in the city dramatically.

Things are getting better, but there is still a lot to be done

It is important to note that from year to year pollution levels in the city have been going down but they are still well above acceptable levels. This was acknowledged in the court ruling against the city authorities – every year, the days with dangerous pollution levels are becoming fewer and fewer.

Mayor Fandakova explained that there is still a lot of work to be done to reach acceptable levels. She later called upon both governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as citizens to collaborate and combine their efforts to make the city’s air and water cleaner.

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