Off the record: How a Bulgarian coal plant hid its toxic mercury emissions


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The latest European industrial pollution data show mercury emissions from the Bulgarian power plant Maritsa East 2 increased seven-fold between 2016 and 2017 – the last year for which data is available. Mercury emissions were never reported for the previous years. Such an abrupt increase is likely to be due to tightening EU reporting requirements, which oblige operators to monitor and declare the actual amount of emissions instead of just providing an estimation.

Across Europe coal burning is the single biggest source of mercury pollution entering the air. It is often carried over long distances and finds its way into the food-chain through bioaccumulation in large fish. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin which damages human health and can destroy lives. Europe has signed up to the Minamata Convention to limit mercury emissions from human sources, and the EU’s Mercury Regulation was adopted in 2017.

Part of south-central Bulgaria’s Maritsa East Energy Complex, Maritsa East 2 is the largest thermal power plant in the Balkans. It burns lignite produced by the state-owned Maritsa East Mines. Often referred to as “brown coal”, lignite is the cheapest form of coal, as well as the dirtiest: because of its composition and its low energetic value, burning lignite in coal power plants creates more air pollutant emissions than hard coal per megawatt generated. 

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