Greenpeace protests coal industry in RomaniaRomania shows no sign of curtailing its coal industry despite its promises to cut carbon emissions, so two groups filed a legal challenge against a particularly dirty power plant. Photo credit: Andrei Pungovschi/Getty Images

By Isabella Kaminski

Environmental authorities in Romania have been accused of failing to consider the climate impacts of one of the country’s oldest and most polluting power stations, which was granted a lifetime permit to operate last year.

Two environmental advocacy groups, Greenpeace Romania and ClientEarth submitted a legal challenge last month against the permit for Rovinari, a coal-fired thermoelectric plant in Gorj County in southwestern Romania. The permit was granted last September, nearly a year after its previous permit expired.

Although not the biggest CO2 emitter in Europe, the 43-year-old plant ranks among the worst for its impact on human health, according to a 2016 report by environmental groups Climate Action Network and Sandbag.

Greenpeace and ClientEarth say Environmental Protection Agency Gorj, the regional environmental regulator, did not fully assess the plant’s impacts on the environment, climate and human health, and are seeking a judicial review of the decision. They say no such assessment has been made since the plant was built.

In its pledge to the Paris Climate Agreement, Romania said it would reduce its carbon emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The country also committed to adopt “a 2030 climate change and low-carbon economy strategy and plan with clear landmarks, objectives and forefront opportunities to address climate change challenges and built up sustainable development pathways.”  But it has not yet set a date to phase out coal and continues to allow its coal power plants to operate.

The environmental advocacy groups also argue Rovinari’s permit allows the plant to emit illegal levels of dust. Greenpeace says its air quality modelling shows continued operation of the plant would lead to substantial harm to public health, including contributing to a projected 490 premature deaths in the next decade.

The permit also allows the plant to discharge hazardous industrial waste downstream into a protected area containing threatened aquatic habitats and species.

The campaigners say the permit breaches both Romanian and European Union (EU) law. The EU Industrial Emissions Directive, in particular, set strict limits on emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities and outlines complex technical rules for abatement equipment. It also requires national environmental regulators to consider the environmental impacts—including the impact on climate—of such plants.

A judicial hearing is expected within the next six months.

Greenpeace Romania campaigner Cosmin Pleşcan said environmental authorities cannot ignore Rovinari’s climate impact. “The devastating impacts of coal on our climate are undeniable. The recent UN IPCC report makes it clear that Europe needs a completely fossil-free energy system by 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement. No plant should be given an indefinite permit to pollute without first assessing the risks.”

Rovinari’s operator Complexul Energetik Oltenia denied that the permit had been obtained illegally and said in a statement that it is subject to annual assessment by the regional environmental authority. It added that, given Clientearth and Greenpeace’s mission “to expose environmental threats,” they should really be investigating the impact of all industrial facilities.

But campaigners say they are doing just that. In March 2018, ClientEarth and Greenpeace Romania filed a formal complaint to the European Commission about the very low level of sanctions imposed by Romanian authorities on coal-fired power plant operators that are breaching the law.

Under EU law, countries must adopt “effective,” “proportionate” and “dissuasive” sanctions to punish non-compliant operators. But campaigners say the amounts that Romanian companies have been fined—which range from $7,000-14,000—are “too low to deter them from operating illegally.” The companies take in annual revenues of  between $97 million and 450 million). The European Commission is currently investigating.

Romania has been taken to task many times over its environmental regulation and enforcement since joining the EU in 2007. In 2017, the European Commission warned the country that four large industrial plants (not including Rovinari) did not have valid permits.

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