In a letter sent today, environmental association Za Zemiata (“For the Earth”) and the CEE Bankwatch Network, supported by experts and local citizens’ organisations, appealed to the European Commission, the European Investment Bank, and the Stability Pact not to support (through loans and grants) the expansion of the Sofia airport, citing the project’s negative social, environmental and economic implications for the country of Bulgaria and its citizens. The EIB is currently committing a EUR 60 million loan, and the ISPA fund a EUR 50 million grant to this project.
Two main points of the NGOs’ letter are the fact that the airport’s proximity to residential neighbourhoods poses a health and safety threat and that the airport expansion makes little economic sense. Decreasing passenger numbers and the bankruptcy of the Bulgarian air company “Balkan” simply do not justify expanding the airport, and the costs of this controversial project will have to be borne by Bulgarian and EU taxpayers.
Local residents also say that their concerns have been brushed aside. Emil Kolarov, chairman of the Initiative Committee for Citizen Protection from the Activities of Sofia Airport, an organisation representing affected residents, says, “We were promised lots of reasonable things like mitigation measures, we even signed a program for public control and participation. Unfortunately, construction has already started and the promises remain only on paper.”
Violeta Minkova, mayor of Sofia’s Nova Vrajdebna district, adds, “Some people will lose their homes because of the construction of the new runway. They were promised compensation, but the money they received did not cover the real cost of the land. They were promised jobs, but since the start of the construction, none of them has been offered employment.”
Keti Medarova of “For the Earth”, questions the financial sustainability of the project because of its very low (3,6%) internal rate of return. “The project’s cost is higher than its benefits. It will further harm local people and the environment while not generating the income stream needed to pay back the loans. So far, there has been little proof to justify the project, since the existing airport facilities fully satisfy the current passenger flow.”
Medarova also says that the airport authorities did not adequately study the environmental impacts of the expansion project. “There was never a thorough EIA for the expanded airport as a whole. The EIA’s existing two non-technical summaries study the new terminal and new runway but do not show the real cumulative impacts of the airport facilities, in violation of both European and national EIA legislation.”
The fact that European law may have been violated is important, since the airport’s backers are hoping for funding from the European Union and European Investment Bank.
Another issue pointed out by “For the Earth” is that the responsible institutions did not adequately address public safety. Runway planning engineers and experts from the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), who support the environmental group’s letter, are opposed to the project because the environmental impact report does not accurately assess the threats posed to public safety. During the past 40 years, there have been six aeroplane crashes and two other serious air accidents in the Sofia region.
Magda Stoczkiewicz, campaign coordinator for the CEE Bankwatch and Friends of the Earth points out that the EIB has a poor record with airport projects. In Schiphol (Netherlands) and Heathrow (UK) the EIB approved loans while there were court cases pending against the expansion. “If the Bank does not care about the environment or the opinion of affected people,” concludes Stoczkiewicz, “it should at least reconsider its financing for Sofia airport based on economic grounds”.
The letter to the European institutions is supported by local citizens’ organisations, independent ICAO experts and engineers and a declaration signed by more than 25 Bulgarian environmental groups. The groups are asking the responsible European institutions to take their concerns seriously into account, and to reconsider their support for this dubious project.
NOTES FOR EDITORS:
The CEE Bankwatch Network is a coalition of environmental organisations from Central and Eastern Europe. The network’s mission is to prevent environmentally and socially harmful impacts of international development finance, and to promote alternative solutions and public participation. The NGO letter is available on request. Further info on the Sofia Airport expansion issue is available at: www.stabilitypactwatch.info/
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:
Keti Medarova Za Zemiata / CEE Bankwatch Network firstname.lastname@example.org (+359) 89 31 91 79
Magda Stoczkiewicz, CEE Bankwatch / Friends of the Earth International email@example.com (+31) 20 622 13 69