Galina Gerginova spent 22 years living in Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The older she got, the more she yearned for the open spaces in which she’d grown up. Two years ago she moved to Pernik, a small town, 30 km away from Sofia where her family still owned some land. The 37-year old interior designer wanted to build her own house with a yard, overlooking a lush forest park she vividly remembered from her childhood.
Little did Gerginova know that instead of the thick shade of trees and the beautiful view, she’d discover an unexpected neighbour – an open-pit coal mine, operated by a Belgian-owned company called ReCoal.
“Many of the trees have been cut and the mine is just several hundred meters away from people’s houses,” she said, waving towards the mine, as she walks around Stara Teva, one of the neighbourhoods along with Nova Teva and Rudnichar which are closest to the mine.
“The mine is very close to the neighbourhood which is not only illegal but also dangerous,” said Genady Kondarev from Za Zemiata, a Sofia-based environmental organization.
“At a time when we have electrical cars and renewable energy, in Pernik mines are taking over the town,” said Gerginova, who was forced to put on hold her plans to build her dream house.
During communism, Pernik positioned itself as an industrial hub but after the regime’s collapse most factories shut down. Although Pernik’s industrial days are over, the town of nearly 80,000 people, continues to praise itself as a coal mining center. Those who decide to stay put rather than moving or commuting to Sofia in search of better job opportunities, find work in the coal mining or industries supporting the sector.
Recoal’s concession contract expired in the spring of 2015 and Kondarev says the government needs to initiate a public discussion about whether the mining permit should be renewed. Many Pernik residents worry that the mine has continued operating illegally.
Recoal is not the only company digging coal in this area. A second mine, owned by a local oligarch, recently got their concession extended for another 15 years. And that’s not all.
Residents of Stara Teva complain that a third mine has emerged dangerously close to their houses. Za Zemiata shot an aerial video of the area, showing how the mines are creeping closer and closer to the houses, threating to devour them. Bulgarian authorities say that officially there shouldn’t be a new mine anywhere near here.
This area, just meters away from the last houses in Stara Teva, looks like a Swiss cheese with some 300 illegally dug holes. For those digging coal at the unofficial sites, occupational, health and safety concerns abound. Za Zemiata estimates that at least 13 people have died in recent years.
Local residents say that each day around dozens of sacks of coal are being retrieved from the ground, then loaded intro trucks and then sold in town cheaper than the market price. Neighbours say that the workers have been just hired to do – literally – the “dirty job” but the scheme is developed by people involved in the mining business.
Real consequences of intensive mining in the area are yet to be seen. But many people in the nearby neighbourhoods fear potential landslides.
“There is a big hole, gaping just above our house,” said Vesislava Vladimirova, expressing concern that there might be a land slide soon which could destroy the whole neighbourhood. She has lived in the area since 1994. “I worry that soon I’ll find miners digging in my backyard,” Vladimirova complained.
In July three houses in a nearby neighbourhood collapsed and some residents were evacuated. While the authorities said that it was due to unauthorized construction, many believe it’s a result of mining in the area. Only then Bulgarian government announced that illegal mining should be criminalized.
“People think that the mines are just our problem. They think that a potential land slide would affect only our neighbourhood, but it could affect the city as well,” Vladimirova noted.
One of the utilities companies has its transmission towers, which supplies electricity to several quarters of Pernik, is now located within the open-pit mine. Vladimirova and other residents worry that it could fall or be damaged by the heavy machinery used by the mine.
Diana Petrova, a 40-year old kinder garden teacher, and her family were planning to build an extension to their house and even laid the foundations last year. However, they didn’t dare beginning the construction, as they’re concerned about their safety. “There could be a land slide tomorrow and the whole neighbourhood would be gone,” she said.
Eighteen years ago when Petrova moved to the neighbourhood along with her husband, she used to wake up to bird songs and a leafy forest. “Now it’s the noise of diggers and trucks which wakes me up” she said.
However, like Gerginova who was so outraged by what she saw, Petrova couldn’t stay idle. They started meeting and talking to neighbours and researching the problem. Last year they organized a meeting where a hundred people from the neighbourhood showed up.
Then a group of residents have sent letters and petitions to all the government and local bodies which are responsible for mining in the area, as well as arranged a number of meetings with ministers and state officials.
“Our demand is simple,” said Gerginova. “We don’t want Recoal as our neighbour.”
They want the area around their neighbourhood to be taken out of the country’s list of active coal mining sites. Green advocates support their demand, saying that Bulgaria already has enough coal mines.
In the spring of 2015, people from the neighbourhood launched a campaign against coal mining in Pernik, sponsored by Za Zemiata. As a sign of protest they planted 40 trees to replace some of the ones which have been cut.
Since then, however, there has been too much talk and little change.
“Dealing with the local administration is like banging your head against the wall”. That’s how Gerginova summarizes two years of writing complaints, sending letters and talking to all the state and local authorities involved.
Petrova agrees. “I’m afraid that I have no future,” she said. “I’m afraid that the town has no future.”
Despite the growing pessimism among the residents, a handful of people still keep pushing for a coal-mining-free environment. According to green activists, it’s a cause worth fighting for.
“Pernik needs to make a choice – between its people and its coal,” Kondarev said.
Video of Za Zemiata: