Biostench and Broken Phones Biomass power plant reactors near the village of Trud, Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Initiative Committee of Trud

Biostench and Broken Phones

Repeated road blocks near Bulgaria’s second largest city of Plovdiv took on a metaphorical meaning this past December as locals came out en masse in response to having themselves been continuously “blocked” from proper information and participation in discussions surrounding a local biomass plant. What was supposed to be a technologically forward step towards smart, clean energy and jobs in the nearby village of Trud instead ended up delivering mistrust, confusion, and bad air of various forms: one that smells of rotting waste; another in terms of the relations between the company behind the plant and the local people; and the third being the controversial actions taken by local institutions responsible for allowing the biofuel plant in the first place. On May 23 the environmental minister ordered an inspection of the ambient air quality next to the biomass plant, and in the air is still locals’ feeling that the ecological production of energy is very much against their best interests.

Upon leaving the city of Plovdiv, en route to the nearby village of Trud, any visitor can attest to the intense need for fresh air in the countryside. Whether due to the sharp gasoline fumes of the old minibus liners, the passage through the industrial zone, or the heightened levels of fine dust particles in the air during winter, the need to leave this “future European capital of culture” for normalised breathing is extreme.

“My parents and I left the city to come here. We built our house with a beautiful garden, where you can come out for a barbecue with pleasure”, says Stanimir Tonchev, an advertising specialist who moved from Plovdiv to Trud for an ideal country life.

The village is one of the easy ways of attaining the ever more popular dream of simultaneously escaping urban tension while also living in sufficient proximity to jobs and active, city life. Trud’s population is over 4,000 people, and vacancies are already hard to find in its kindergarten.

But Stanimir’s idyllic dream was seriously shattered in the beginning of 2015 when an installation for the anaerobic fermentation of biomass started working some 300 metres away from his yard. Its purpose was to produce heat and electricity to be sold by the company Build Invest Sit, an entity which had made the faulty presumption that its innovative, green power plant was a contemporary supplement to the urban man’s dream of clean nature.

Protesting against green technology

“The raw materials used in the power plant in Trud for ecological production are vegetative crops and animal dung, supplied by licensed animal farms. Following a primary treatment for placing and mixing they are fed into two reactors, biological fermenters, where the raw materials undergo a biological transformation that releases methane, a rich biogas. It is then passed into a stationary internal combustion aggregate similar to a car engine that powers a generator of electrical energy, the product of our power plant,” explains Ivan Ivanov, the ecologist at Build Invest Sit.

“Trud wants to breathe!”, a slogan held by Ana Marlakova and Stanimir Tonchev in front of Bulgaria’s Parliament in Sofia. Photo: Trud village initiative.

Biogas power plants are currently one of the most popular ecological alternatives to coal and other solid fuels for the production of heat and electricity. However, in the village of Trud, practically a suburb of Plovdiv, residents are not at all enthusiastic about the biological solution, nor do they see it as a positive addition to their village life. Instead they are actively protesting against the power plant for several reasons: the continuous stench of fermented dung, an increase of pulmonary diseases, the constant noise from machinery at the plant, and damage to the village’s road infrastructure.

Reasons for protest: continuous stench, pulmonary diseases, constant noise, and road damage.

Inhabitants began complaining to various institutions back in 2015, and the situation escalated after the power plant began working with animal dung in the middle of that same year. An initiative committee was established that summer, and local protests have even achieved two symbolic blockages of the road to Karlovo. Today, the discontent of Trud is making the rounds on both local and national media.

“The problem can be resolved. The power plant has to be moved. A new ordinance is necessary about the distance of such productions from residential areas that should apply to the already existing ones. This is not only Trud’s problem”, Evromegdan was told by Ana Marlakova, chair of the village’s initiative committee, which was established in the wake of local complaints.

The investors have been aware of the problem since before the creation of the committee, Tonchev claims. “A person from the firm has left his phone number and a lot of people kept calling and telling him that it smells”, he says. “Why then have these things not been reported and we began falling ill?”

Several other people from the village, in and outside of the initiative committee, corroborated for Evromegdan that since the middle of 2015, when the use of animal dung began, there has been a recurrent presence of extremely foul odours within two kilometres from the facility. Obviously, this issue is even more prevalent during the hot summer months.

“The smell reminds of a cow farm with 200 animals”, said Vanya Davcheva who runs a business alongside her boyfriend two kilometres away. “It smells of fermented biomaterials. At opening the cistern following their treatment a foul odour starts spreading, which reaches as far as two kilometres depending on the wind and its direction”, Dr. Roumen Nalbanski asserts, a general practitioner in the village.

An animal dung cistern on its way to the plant in Trud. Image: Borislav Belchinov

The stink has led to a number of complaints by locals to Plovdiv’s Maritsa municipality and to the Regional Inspectorate for the Environment and Waters (RIEW). According to Marlakova, the initial actions taken by these groups in response to local concerns are far from adequate, especially since the odour could simply be the more obvious sign of far more harmful fumes.

“There is an increase in the cases of bronchitis, asthma, other pulmonary conditions, which is due to a huge extent to the power plant”, Dr. Nalbanski asserts. According to eng. Ivanov, however, there is no way for the technological process used in the power plant to be a source of any such strong smells and health problems.

The power plant’s technology is designed by the manufacturer so that animal dung is not kept on the site, assures eng. Ivanov. After the arrival of the cisterns carrying biological material, they are connected to their respective component of the installation, and their content is pumped directly into the airtight fermenters, inside where all odours are eliminated. The company ecologist asserts that only biomass, or corn silage, is stored, and, according to him, all leftover material, solid and liquid biological manure, is pumped away from the reactors in an airtight manner as well.

In eng. Ivanov’s opinion, the stench is most probably caused by large livestock breeding enterprises and dung heaps in and around Trud, and he further claims that the poor air quality in the area is due to the widespread use of solid fuels during the heating season.

Build Invest Sit: the cause of the stench is due to large livestock breeding and dung heaps, and the poor quality air is due to the widespread use of solid fuels for heating.

This goes against the observations of Dr. Nalbanski and other villagers. According to them, there are very few agricultural animals in the area, and any health impact from the traditional use of wood and coal for heating would have been felt long before the arrival of this biomass power plant. However, it is still best to note that back in 2004, the World Health Organization had warned that the use of solid fuel stoves for household heating was one of the most serious threats to the environment as well as to people’s health in Eastern Europe.

The initiative committee has also claimed that airtight pumping only began after noisy protests erupted against the foul odours emanating from the plant. Apparently, the cisterns of animal dung were originally unloaded into a large open tub, and the output material used to be unloaded straight onto the site as well.

In eng. Ivanov’s opinion the only source of harmful emissions, nitrous and sulphuric oxides, is the combustion of the biogas in the aggregate that produces the electrical energy.  And the internal controls performed by the company indicate that any such harmful emissions are within limits permitted under the key Ordinance ­­1 of the Ministry of the Environment and Waters.

However, during several of the numerous checks on the plant during 2015 and 2016, RIEW-Plovdiv found heightened norms of these emissions amounting to violations of the Waste Management Act and the Waters Act. At one of the control measurements on 11 April of this year, an emissions reading of sulphuric oxide was found to exceed the prescribed limit fourfold, and Build Invest Sit was fined 4500 lev (2250 EUR).

This document acquired by the initiative committee shows high level of emissions from the plant on one of the checks by RIEW in 2016.

At a subsequent control, proper procedures for waste storage were being observed, and emissions were within the norm, data that were confirmed by RIEW. The same body concluded that there is no problem with noise levels coming from the plant site despite ongoing complaints by inhabitants in the area.

Eng. Ivanov told Evromegdan that the company’s investors will appeal against the imposed penalties, being of the opinion that RIEW’s measurements of the harmful emissions did not comply with the methodical measuring rules of the Ministry of the Environment and Waters. Furthermore, an examination by a panel comprised of representatives of the initiative committee, the regional inspectorate, and the municipality has found no presence of unpleasant smells outside the site. “I am not familiar in detail with the specifics in the complaints. They provide various different information”, stated eng. Ivanov, who has had no direct contact with the villagers. 22

In Vanya Dvacheva’s words, the people at the plant first treated local residents “as laymen” who were simply too ignorant to be consulted on anything and whose complaints were unfounded. Marlakova says communication did improve, but that little progress has been made. “We do not want to order expensive measurements of the harmful emissions, neither go to court. We want the institutions to do their job”, Marlakova states. Unfortunately, present laws may not be on their side to get the support they seek.

Misguided rules

The plans for construction of the plant were presented to the municipal council and, in particular, the management of Trud in 2012. The information had been posted around shops in the village, but Build Invest Sit’s management decided that there was no reason for any serious discussions to take place with locals.  The original plans only intended for the use of silage, not animal dung, and the legal deadlines for submitting any objections to the project have long passed. RIEW had further deemed that the permission to actualise the plant required no environmental impact assessment (EIA). 24

The protest in the beginning of December, 2016.

According to the displeased villagers, RIEW’s decision was clearly wrong and such an assessment was necessary in 2012 and is still necessary today. But the letter of the law is against them. The necessity of any EIA can only be considered during the “investment proposal” stage, and back then, unaware of any intended use of animal dung and never given proper information as to the functioning of the site, locals had not lodged any complaints against the conceptualised plant.

Unfortunately, the decision that an EIA was not necessary was also based on a statement from the Regional Health Inspectorate (RHI) in Plovdiv, which deemed the investment proposal admissible. This single appraisal by RHI superseded Ordinance 7, which was then cancelled earlier that same year in 2012.  The ordinance had overseen hygienic requirements to protect the health of people living in populated areas and regulated the development of risky plants such as the one in Trud that are in proximity to residential zones.  It had stated precisely that there cannot be biogas production installations within less than 500 metres from residential buildings.

The absence of Ordinance 7 definitely facilitated the development of the present issues in Trud, but, to be honest, an extra 200 metres of distance between the plant and homes would probably not have solved the town’s problems. Nevertheless, the convenient absence of any such rules regarding required spacing along with the questionable timing of the assessments by RIEW and RHI are both events which have been seriously called into question by those now opposing the biomass facility.

A further concern surrounds how easily Build Invest Sit was able to include the use of dung into their plans. When the company announced its intention to produce biogas from dung as well as silage in 2015, contrary to the original plans submitted in 2012, the company only had to legally notify the director of RIEW-Plovdiv. The present framework does not require any new appraisal or EIA even with such a fundamental change in the functioning of the facility, nor is there any requirement to inform the local population of the change. Needless to say, the inhabitants of Trud feel swindled given the now daily smell and the sewage trucks passing through their town.

And it appears that it is only due to the continuous protests and vocal discontent by locals that the regional inspectorate has chosen to step in and do something.

One of the recommendations of RIEW is for the company to stop transporting the cisterns of dung through the village and to seek alternative routes. But there is no such alternative road, and it is unclear as to when one can be built. The current town roads themselves are in serious need of funding for repairs and are now being further damaged by Build Invest Sit’s lorries continuously passing through as the plant works around the clock.

50 = 2

The original intentions also included the creation of 50 jobs, which has not happened according to the initiative committee. The latest check of the working plant found two employees inside.

More employment may have been a plus, and bypassing the village en route to the factory could help the smell a bit. But there remain the pressing issues of noise and health concerns. However, the company in charge believes it is observing what are the legal norms.

“The use of refuse biomass for the production of electricity is done in a number of countries, and we are lagging behind in this respect. In the developed world there are such facilities in populated areas, but for them to exist the people must be OK with it”, says to Evromegdan associate-professor Georgi Patronov, teacher of ecology and non-organic chemistry in Plovdiv University. There is a presumption, says Patronov, that additional limitation and filtration of the noise, smells, and harmful emissions is always possible.

Eng. Ivanov also argues that similar plants exist in inhabited areas in the West and maintains that the plant in Trud meets all best standards for such production. However, Dr. Nalbanski believes that facilities in towns and villages in the West seem to be run in a more professional way and that there are no open tubs and cisterns nor harmful emissions as in the village of Trud. “For me the important thing is that problems are on the rise and the institutions have to do the necessary examinations. The population can’t help rebelling”, observes the physician.

The end result: a bad image of an environmentally friendly method of energy production.

Poor communications by the company with residents as well as a complete disregard for their concerns combined with controversial actions taken by local law makers and institutions have seriously compromised what is in essence a useful green technological solution. The end result of this mess has been a bad image of an environmentally friendly method of energy production, a solution which is meant to diminish pollution not create it.

The locals see only the institutions playing a game of “hot potato” between themselves and no real progress made in their favour. Given their loss of confidence in the regional inspectorates, they are looking to intervention by the ministries of the environment and health as well as by the Executive Agency for the Environment. On their part, Build Invest Sit sees no problem as long as it abides by the law.

“We’ll wait and see”, replies Vanya Davcheva when asked if she and her partner still plan to raise their family in the village of Trud. The “law” will have to decide if it wants to keep its families or its “green” energy. There certainly appear to be plenty of steps to be taken to ensure a proper, sustainable future for both.

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The story was published originally in Bulgarian in Evromegdan – the e-magazine for journalism in public interest published by the BlueLink Foundation, under Creative Commons non-commercial redistribution licence. Some rights are reserved.

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