Environmentalists Cry Foul over Kresna Motorway
“A necessary compromise” is how both authorities, politicians and road construction companies refer to the last section of the motorway connecting Sofia and Thessaloniki to be constructed through the Kresna Gorge in the South-West of Bulgaria. But while hundreds of local citizens, experts and industry representatives flocked into public hearings as part of the project’s environmental impact assessment, nature protection activists warned that the process is flawed because the government has made up its mind before the hearings have even begun. By bringing the Struma motorway construction plans back inside the Kresna Gorge, Bulgaria’s government has compromised the EU’s environmental laws and public participation procedures and is heading for a major fall, the activists warn.
Indeed, the Kresna motorway drama dates back to the late 1990s when a decision was first made for the construction of a highway from Bulgaria to Greece through the Kresna Gorge. The first completion deadline – the 2004 Olympics in Athens – was hopelessly blown, but in the meantime the project gained speed as part of the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network’s Orient-East/Med corridor. The union, of which Bulgaria eventually became a member in 2007, provided more than €700 million for the construction. But the job has to be completed by the end of 2023, otherwise the entire amount may be lost.
The very first design provided that the motorway should pass through the Kresna Gorge, following the existing
international highway E79. The long curved section of this busy road is known for heavy traffic and frequent – often deadly – accidents. At the same time, with its unique situation between the continental and Mediterranean climate zones of Europe, the gorge is home to rich wildlife, featuring rare tortoise, leopard and four-lined snake species and indigenous flora. As early as 1997, environmentalists pointed out that a motorway would irreversibly destroy their habitats. Andrey Kovachev, a biologist and prominent defender of the gorge since then, compares its ecological significance to an artery of a human body. “It is a key migratory route to several species”, he explained. “And while medicine may replace arteries in the human body with artificial ones, we cannot replace the migratory routes of wild nature”, Kovachev pointed out.
Bulgarian authorities have not been overly concerned with protecting nature, but had to back off after a case was opened against Bulgaria by the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention for the conservation of species and habitats in Europe. A recommendation was issued by the convention’s secretariat, which stated that irreversible impacts on the wildlife would be unacceptable. The EU then demanded that the motorway must avoid routing through the Kresna Gorge. In 2007 and 2008, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out which confirmed that the motorway should run outside the gorge.
EU funding was approved based on this scenario, as were all other sections of the motorway currently built or already in use. But the Kresna section was delayed. Its original design involved a 13-km-long tunnel that would carry the traffic away from the gorge. But in 2014, the Road Infrastructure Agency (RIA) of Bulgaria announced that the tunnel should not be built. Among the arguments brought were: the estimated high cost of construction and maintenance of the tunnel project; passengers’ safety; and seismic activity in the area. Each of these arguments was questioned and debated by independent experts over the years.
But the demand to cancel the tunnel gradually gained prominence and support from politicians in power and the mainstream media. Environmental activists provided their own explanation: that the tunnel option was cancelled because powerful Bulgarian road construction companies could not profit enough from it. Back in 2014, Petko Kovachev, a green economist and co-founder of the Save Kresna Coalition, accused the road construction lobby of jeopardising the Struma Motorway project just to “fill up their guild’s pocket”. Quoted by Capital, Kovachev explained that nepotism and other conflict of interests dominate Bulgaria’s road construction. But construction industry spokespersons put the blame for the project’s 15-year delay on environmentalists – an accusation broadly circulated by pro-government media.
With the 2023 deadline for completion of all construction works for the motorway fast approaching, the Ministry of Regional Development in Sofia requested a new design of “alternative routes”. Five scenarios were presented by the RIA. Among them an expert jury chose the so called G10.50 scenario which involves splitting the road into two: with one direction outside of the gorge, and one following the existing highway. This decision was submitted to the public hearings held on 11 September in the small municipalities of Simitli and Kresna, which will be most affected by the project.
A predetermined outcome
A newly built sports hall was provided by the mayor of Simitli for the public discussion of the motorway project. It was full of people. Even the local sports teams were brought by their trainers to sit and listen to the debate. In the beginning, the hearings’ moderator, Doncho Atanassov, hailed the coming of “a historical event”: the moment when the Struma Motorway would pass through the Kresna Gorge.
Atanassov, who is RIA’s Chairman of the Board, repeated the same statement in Kresna – “through the gorge” being key, apparently. Both events on that day were officially entitled “A public discussion of the report on the EIA for the section of Struma Motorway through the Kresna gorge”, leaving little chance for a different preposition in the outcome.
we cannot replace the migratory routes of wild nature
Many local people came to participate in the Kresna hearing too. The municipal hall turned out to be too small to gather all the participants and tens remained standing in the corridor. In spite of this, the mayor refused to move the discussion to a larger room.
In his welcome address, Atanassov declared that there are more than 20 public organisations that had sent letters of support for this project but made no mention of any who did not support the project or spoke against it. There is no ideal scenario, and the Bulgarian government is choosing a “compromise solution”, Atanassov repeated several times.
The information was shown on a small screen that could hardly be seen by the public, with dull colours. No maps, graphic materials or descriptions were shown in any other way.
The 2007-2008 EIA had established that a long tunnel along the Kresna gorge would have had the lowest environmental impact. But overwhelming arguments against this scenario were presented to the people of Simitli and Kresna, arguments that echoed RIA’s 2015 stand. According to the agency the cost of a tunnel construction would be too steep, amounting to some €400 – 450 million. The cost for maintaining a tunnel was another of RIA’s concerns: Atanassov determined it would be 50-60 million BGN per year” (€25-30 million), which is more than 40% of the total annual budget of the agency. Independent experts have found these estimations quite excessive though. Among the other reasons for the RIA to reject the tunnel option were passenger safety (a car accident inside the tunnel would be far riskier than outdoors, its experts claimed) and geological hazards.
Another claim of the tunnel’s opponents is that when huge amounts of solid waste would be excavated and deposited, a part of it will be radioactive. RIA even warned that this obstacle alone would require a hazardous waste depot to be constructed and a separate EIA. But experts who had carried out the motorway’s EIA argued that the hypothesis of radioactive pollution was built upon one single sample of deep rock, which did not provide enough ground for conclusions.
“Tunnels through high mountains; it is ridiculous to build one near a gorge, where the river has already carved a natural roadway”, an elderly men’s voice echoed from the crowd.
Road terror upon Kresna
Many in Kresna believed another scenario was possible, known as the Eastern G20. It involves a dual-lane motorway in the higher part of the mountain, to the East of Kresna, outside the gorge. Locals say this is the only solution that will move away the heavy transit traffic, which currently goes through the town and right between the houses. In this scenario the current E79 would remain a local road. It will ensure local people can easily reach the bigger regional cities such as Blagoevgrad, Sandanski. This option is preferred by environmentalists as well.
EU taxpayers should fund any motorway that breaks EU law
Having the current E79 road turned into a single motorway lane will bring terror to all of us in Kresna, local people pointed out. The small town will have no alternative – no local road to Blagoevgrad (which lies 40 km north of Kresna). “If I wanted to go to Blagoevgrad, first I’d have to drive few kilometres to reach the highway, then drive on the highway. That would add at least five-seven kilometres per single travel to Blagoevgrad”, a man protested. He said he takes his kids to school in Blagoevgrad. That’s why he drives this route every single day. Others also travel this route every day to work in the nearby regional centre. Adding five-seven kilometres per travel means hundred of additional litres of petrol per year. “This means we have to pay much more”, people said. They declared they do not want to be sponsors of the RIA.But RIA ruled out the Eastern G20 as not viable. One quoted reason was that it would take the motorway right between Simitli’s quarters of Oranovo and Dalga mahala. Noise and air pollution for the locals would be unacceptable, RIA experts said, warning that considering increased traffic projections, these problems could only get worse. However, they failed to explain how the preferred one-way double carriageway through the entire town of Kresna would cause less trouble.
The RIA pointed out that building a dual-lane track in the East would cost “three times more” than a single lane. The experts who carried out the EIA for this scenario said it is “possible, but too expensive and with а huge environmental impact”. In their presentation, they pointed out that more than 1,200 decares of pinewood forests would have to be cut down and several local animal species will be seriously disturbed and harmed if the motorway is dual-lane.
But RIA had refused to offer any data used as the basis for the calculations of construction prices of the different alternatives. And it rejected a public information request for this by NGOs. This caused environmentalists to accuse RIA of a lack of objectivity, not reflecting real data, and practically favouring the preliminary decision of the government for adoption of the alternative G10,5 through the Kresna Gorge against all other options.
RIA argued that any scenarios that go through the Kresna Gorge would have a big environmental impact and could not be allowed. Hence, it concluded, a single alternative remains: the Eastern 10.50, in which one lane goes in the higher part of the mountain to the East of Kresna, and the other widens the existing E79 highway.
Representatives of organisations who supported the option chosen by both the government and the construction industry took the floor in Simitli to bash the greens. Among them were Filip Tsanov, a businessman and vocal advocate of environmentally devastating projects across Bulgaria, and Emil Georgiev, head of a splinter fraction of the once legendary Ekoglasnost – Bulgaria’s first massive green organisation.
“To all the people that are present here, it has to be clear that today we are talking of whether there will ever be a Struma Motorway – or not at all”, said Petar Dikov, former chief architect of Sofia and Chairman of the jury that chose the G10.50 scenario for the RIA. His argument was then echoed in the statements of other participants. The mayor of Blagoevgrad, Atanas Kambitov, focused his attention on the fatalities due to the current E79 road. To put an end to these, the only way is to have the Struma Motorway built through the Kresna Gorge, he insisted.
At the same time, few members of nature-protection organisations were able to speak at the hearings. One of them was Irina Mateeva, an EIA expert at the Bulgarian Birds Protection Organization. She posed two major questions: whether the experts who carried out the EIA were aware of their full criminal liability for any potentially false statements in their assessment; and in what way did the presented scenarios fit the Recommendation 98 (2002) of the Bern Convention. “We could not hear your question”, Atanassov replied bluntly, asking her to submit them in writing. “Next statement, please”, he proceeded.
In Simitli, participation of local people in the hearing was slight. During the three hours of debate only three locals were allowed to speak. A man from Simitli was worried his house would be demolished for the construction project. He has no other home, and the compensation he was promised was not enough. “Your problem is one that can be solved”, Atanassov answered and asked the man to stay for a personal conversation after the public discussion. Later, a woman asked how the people of Simitli will be able to move between “Oranovo” and “Dalga mahala” once the motorway goes between the two quarters. Atanassov promised to tell her in person – after the discussion. Another man from Simitli asked whether the RIA would keep its promise to provide an area for “recreation and business”. Atanassov confirmed without any details and quickly changed the topic.
few members of nature-protection organisations were able to speak
In Kresna, which is situated along the existing E79 road, the public debate was more heated. Local people did not wait for the end of the presentation to reach for the microphone and start with questions and comments. A few of them said the G10.50 project is madness. But others said they didn’t care about lizards and snakes and preferred the motorway going through the gorge. Tsanov, who also attended, took up a personal verbal assault upon environmentalist Andrey Kovachev, accusing him of having “economic interest” in the region. Shouting, accusations, offensive language and insults flew in the air, unchecked by the moderator.
Heading for a fall
Following the public hearings, a High Experts’ Ecological Council of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Environment and Waters approved RIA’s “compromise” proposal on 12 October, 2017. Environmentalists warned that it carries at least three major problems, which make it impossible to implement. In a press statement, the For the Nature non-profit coalition of over 50 NGOs, announced that the G10.50 goes against the environmental rules of the EU and is in conflict with the Bern Convention. The fact that the government’s preferred decision was announced – and actively promoted – long before the EIA’s completion, and the one-sided manner in which the hearings were held, breach EU public participation requirements, the activists pointed out. “Every next month of motor traffic though the gorge brings trouble for the nature”, Andrey Kovachev of the Balkani Wildife Society added.
Building the motorway through the gorge goes against the interest of local people, green activists said. If the current road E79 becomes a motorway, locals would have to travel much longer to reach their most common destinations. People in Simitli and Kresna will have stretches of motorway running straight through their towns, bringing noise and air pollution.
At the same time deadly incidents in the gorge might increase, environmentalists warned. As the average speed will rise, people who routinely walk along the road will be much more vulnerable. Lovers of rafting and kayaking who frequent the Struma river will probably have trouble getting on and off the road. Currently the Kresna Gorge attracts visitors for rafting and kayaking in Europe, and many locals in Kresna want to keep it like that – and add additional services. The motorway will effectively kill walking and biking between the small villages and towns, unless a bike-lane is built along the motorway. Ecological and village tourism would likely be harmed, the coalition warned.
A major concern of the G10.50-route opponents is that it goes against European regulations. They are afraid that this would lead Bulgaria to returning the whole amount of over 700 million euros, dealing a heavy blow to the economy of EU’s poorest member. But even more worrying is their explanation of the reason why road construction companies, and consecutively, the state, prefer to construct half a motorway instead of a full one. With 70% of the money intended for two motorway tunnels, they will now gladly build just one dual carriageway road, explained Toma Belev, a prominent nature protection activist. “The difference will secure great profits to both builders and politicians involved”, Belev concluded.
Bulgaria’s Minister of Environment and Waters Neno Dimov ignored these warnings. On 23 October he approved the High Ecological Expert Council’s decision and gave a green light to the G10.50 option. His decision will be challenged in court by nature protection organisations, who believe it is based on a flawed procedure.
Bulgaria’s government intends to plough half of the international Struma motorway through one of the most precious wildlife hotspots in Europe – a Natura 2000 site protected under EU law, observed Robbie Blake, Nature Campaigner at “Friends of the Earth” Europe, Brussels. “It is out of the question that EU taxpayers should fund any motorway that breaks EU law – particularly when a much less damaging motorway route exists”, said Blake. According to him, a motorway through Kresna Gorge would wreck devastation on this natural jewel, which is already being depleted by the traffic on the existing small road. “It would be a crime against nature to route motorway traffic through the gorge and would breach important EU nature protection laws” Blake added.
Read more about Kresna here.