Discriminated against Bulgarian Town Halts EU ‘Clean Air’ Funding

by Димитър Стоянов

European Union (EU) financing for nearly BGN 115 million to improve air quality in the Bulgarian cities of Sofia, Burgas, Vidin, Plovdiv, Montana and Smolyan and the town of Dimitrovgrad has stalled after the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa has successfully appealed before the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) the preliminary execution of an order of the Operational Program Environment (OPE) which is subordinate to the Environment Ministry of Minister Neno Dimov. The reason – discriminatory conditions in the distribution of money, imposed by the country’s rulers. If the order for implementation of the measures proves to be illegal, the Bulgarian taxpayers will have to pay from the State budget the innovations made so far under the OPE. The order approves the conditions for applying for a grant under a direct procedure from the “Measures to Improve Quality of Atmospheric Air”.

The proceedings have been initiated following a private complaint by the Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality, represented by Mayor Dobromir Dobrev. According to him, the criteria by which eligible candidates have been determined have been illegal and discriminatory. The Municipality of Gorna Oryahovitsa is not among them, but it wants to be, stressing it is one of the five municipalities in Bulgaria with the most polluted air.

The attacked order identifies only seven municipalities with poor air quality that are to receive free financial assistance. The others have received a refusal. The mayors of the municipalities of Burgas, Vidin, Dimitrovgrad, Montana, Plovdiv, Smolyan and the capital Sofia have been informed that the issuance of an individual administrative act – guidelines for application under the procedure has begun. These seven municipalities have submitted their proposals.

The municipality of Gorna Oryahovitsa has complained to the Court that in practice it has been denied the opportunity to apply under this procedure as an eligible candidate. This affects its rights and legitimate interests to be funded under a national program to improve air quality. Just last year, Dobrev announced that

Gorna Oryahovitsa is among the municipalities with the most polluted air

However, it has not fallen within the scope of the program because the criteria table has contained incorrect data filled by the Managing Authority of the program. Its coefficient has been calculated on the basis of the number of households, not the number of inhabitants, as in other municipalities. This has been one of the reasons why Gorna Oryahovitsa has been was dropped from the ranking. Before the ranking’s release, the Municipality had expected over BGN 8 million which would help households wishing to switch from solid fuel heaters to other types of heating.

The SAC panel, presided by Judge Marianka Cherneva, has found the municipality’s appeal admissible and well-founded. According to the judges, the depletion of the financial resource, allowed by the preliminary execution of the order of the Head of the OPE General Directorate, will cause significant damage to the health of the population of the Municipality, given the nature of the assistance. The Court recognizes that the health of the residents of Gorna Oryahovitsa is of high public interest.

Mayor Dobrev, himself, upon filing his claim with the lower instance – Veliko Turnovo Administrative Court, has predicted that it would cause the program not to be implemented in the cities that have qualified. At the lower instance, the request to suspend the enforcement of the order has been denied, but the SAC has ruled in favor of the plaintiff.

In April this year, the Sofia Municipality boasted that measures had been taken to prevent air pollution. The Minister of Environment and Waters Neno Dimov and the Mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova signed a contract for a project under the OPE.

Their announcement further states that the amount of the investment, which is actually a grant, is BGN 44.3 million, provided by the OPE 2014-2020. The deadline for the implementation of the activities is 54 months. The order to execute these measures has now been suspended. And taxpayers footing the bill will not be a precedent.

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This post is also available in: Bulgarian