Vesela Georgieva's daily life is shrouded in black.
She and her family live in Galabovo, in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora region, and every day she sees, breathes, and fights a losing battle to clean the thick black dust that belches from a nearby coal plant.
"Our concrete is black. Our gardens are black. Our car windows are black in the morning, and we have to run the wipers to wash this stuff off," she says.
When she opens her kitchen window, she says the room is covered with black dust within minutes.
The source is the Brikel thermal power plant, which is located 2 kilometers northeast of Galabovo and linked to Bulgarian businessman Hristo Kovachki. For years, residents and environmentalists have complained that the plant is polluting the surrounding area. Official inspections have been carried out and violations have been written up, and yet the plant continues to operate.
In July, at the end of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's government, he and then-Environment Minister Borislav Sandov toured the plant as part of an inspection and found "mind-boggling violations." Authorities ordered the plant to shut down immediately until the pollution issues were resolved.
However, a court suspended the order for Brikel’s closure and ruled it could continue to operate until the final resolution, in court, of the dispute with the country's environmental authorities.
Brikel isn’t the only power plant near Galabovo, but it is the oldest. There are two others -- AES Galabovo and ContourGlobal Maritsa Iztok 3 -- both of which are owned by U.S. companies. But locals have no doubt about where the black dust is coming from.
"When Brikel is running, it's dirty. The dust disappears when the plant is not working,” Georgieva says.
Over the years, the Regional Environment and Water Inspectorate (RIOSV) for the Stara Zagora region has taken note. It has issued at least five notices of violations to the plant, maintaining that it releases so-called "unorganized" emissions into the atmosphere, namely particles of inorganic dust linked to coal and mining operations.
Scooping Up Bags Of Black
Everyone in the area knows what the term "unorganized” means here: The whole plant is smoking. Smoke even seeps out of its windows and doors, which environmentalists say is especially problematic as it can neither be purified nor measured.
This is a violation of the plant's permit, which stipulates that it emit emissions only from designated chimneys. When the Environmental Executive Agency renewed Brikel’s permit in 2021, it acknowledged that the plant systematically violates this requirement. However, it was given permission to remain in operation.
At the time, the agency's director was Rositsa Karamfilova, currently environment minister in the caretaker government.
"Large dust particles come straight out of the plant. They are quite visible, not like the fine dust particles that are invisible to the naked eye. On the contrary, we see them very clearly," says Meglena Antonova, an expert at Greenpeace Bulgaria.
Earlier this month, she and a representative of the For The Earth association went to the regional eco-inspection office in Stara Zagora, where she requested data on emissions from coal plants in the area.
The same day, Galabovo municipal councilor Stefan Nikolov gave the inspection office a bag of black powder collected from his own garden.
"People in the area complain because for them this is a daily routine: They have to constantly clean their yards, cars, playgrounds. Everything in their homes is covered with this [black] dust every day," Antonova says. "We fully support their concerns that it is not entirely clear what this dust is and how much of a risk it is to them. "
Georgieva has four sons. Three of them were born and grew up in Galabovo.
"To this day, all three struggle with some form of respiratory illness. Two of my children have been diagnosed with asthma before they turned 1 year old. The third child got off easier but also has problems," she says. "I can't say for sure that Brikel is guilty, but I'm drawing my own conclusions."
"We walk in filth and breathe filth," she added.
The plant's management, meanwhile, attributes the black smoke and dust to the type of coal it uses.
"We have a very good partnership with the Maritsa Iztok mines and, at the moment, we are using the opportunity to help them and take over their worst coal while they fix the situation" at one of the mines, Brikel’s director, Yanilin Pavlov, told Bulgarian Nova TV on July 24. "We have taken a series of measures to limit this dusting, but at the moment this is the situation."
Three times since July, RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service has sent written questions by e-mail to Brikel and extended an invitation for an interview to the plant's director. There has been no response. Likewise, there was no answer on the plant management’s contact phone number listed on the plant’s website.
The black smoke pouring out of the plant is not the only violation recorded at Brikel over the years.
In its decision to renew the permit in 2021, the Environmental Executive Agency cited findings from the local eco-inspection office that list systemic violations, among them the use of unauthorized fuels such as biomass and waste and the improper disposal of pollutants.
The findings also concluded that the plant's boilers, which were installed between 1958 and 1962, are "heavily depreciated." There are frequent breakdowns and the boilers themselves have leaks, which is the reason for the release of harmful substances through the roof and windows.
In many cases, the norms of harmful substances released in the atmosphere were exceeded. In one case from 2015, for example, following complaints about a suffocating smell of sulfur, the eco-inspection office found that sulfur dioxide from flu gases were being released directly into the atmosphere, without purification.
After Petkov and Sandov’s visit in July, the government press service reported that a mobile air-measuring station reported a concentration of sulfur dioxide and fine dust particles “many times” above the norm.
“During two separate time periods, [the measurements] reached their maximum capacity. They couldn't measure more than that,” Sandov told Bulgarian National Television on July 29.
In May, the Court of Justice of the European Union condemned Bulgaria for systematically exceeding the permissible standards of sulfur dioxide in the Galabovo region between 2007 and 2018.
'A Deliberate Cover-Up'
The regional eco-inspection office issued dozens of citations to Brikel between 2010 and 2021. Between 2016 and March 2021, the plant was written up 14 times for established administrative violations and 13 criminal decrees. The citations came with fines ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 lev ($15,000-$52,000).
"The problem is that from this large list, the majority of citations go nowhere because they are appealed by the company and go to court," said Antonova. "It's a problem because the offender suffers no real penalties."
Former Environment Minister Sandov said in July that dozens of citations for violations had been overruled. According to him, they were overruled by local courts first and then the regional eco-inspection office did not appeal the decisions.
"This speaks of a deliberate cover-up," Sandov told bTV in July.
In 2021, the plant’s complex permit was renewed, even though it had been found to be in breach of its previous one. The decision was approved by Karamfilova, who was head of the Environmental Executive Agency at the time.
Brikel was supposed to close in 2011. After 2008, it operated with a temporary permit that allowed for 20,000 hours with its old installation. Shortly after the deadline, however, the company requested a new permit, and one was granted. That's how it continues to work to this day.
According to Petkov and Sandov, local authorities had an “umbrella” over Brikel. Both admitted that the reason for this was the plant's relationship with Hristo Kovachki, a businessman with many ties in the energy sector. Petkov asked the State Agency National Security (DANS) to determine Kovachki's relationship to Brikel.
Pavlov, Brikel's director, confirmed that Kovachki is a consultant for the company.
According to documents, Brikel EAD is owned by the U.K.-registered company Bakker Limited, which is run by British citizen Roy Kennedy. Sandov said back in December 2021 that he would request a meeting with Kennedy, but the meeting never took place. Later, the former minister described Kennedy as a "straw man.” Pavlov said in a television interview that he had not been appointed by Kennedy and did not know him.
In that it is owned by a foreign company, the company resembles other plants Kovachki is rumored to work with. In its report, Greenpeace cited transactions between some of these companies and other evidence that they are connected and said Brikel is part of Kovachki's "coal empire."
After the inspections in July, the regional eco-inspection office in Stara Zagora issued an order for the forced closure of Brikel. According to Sandov, the plant should remain closed until it addresses its violations.
However, the company appealed the order and asked the court to suspend its preliminary execution. On August 17, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the plant can continue operating until the dispute over the legality of the order is finally resolved.
The judges said that Brikel is on a list of “strategic objects of importance for national security.” They said this means its activity is in the public interest and "its immediate suspension would significantly harm this interest.”
The company itself said that, if it closes, nearly 1,300 people would lose their jobs. The plant director also said at least 1,000 miners would be out of work, as well as workers at the plants for which the briquette factory produces fuel. He also said people in Galabovo would be left without heating and hot water and pointed out that a shutdown of the plant “threatens the energy security of the country.”
The local authorities maintain that even with Brikel out of commission, the residents of Galabovo would be provided with heat, and that the other plants can continue to work. They also say the conditions at the plant are harmful to the workers themselves and it is in their interest to improve them. According to Sandov, Brikel only produces about 1 percent of the country’s electricity and the country's energy security is not threatened in any way.
RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service last spoke with Georgieva before the August 17 ruling that allows to plant to keep operating. Even then, however, she expressed doubt over whether there would ever be a resolution.
"People are skeptical because they've shut the plant down so many times and yet it’s still working," she says. "To me, this is an absolute eco-monstrosity that is recklessly poisoning the 21st century, visibly and unceremoniously."