Legal battle as ‘coal moles’ wreck Bulgarian homes

When her house was left uninhabitable because of illegal coal mining in 2015, Bulgarian homeowner Elka Tiškina took the matter to court. Her battle continues with a fresh appeal launched this week.

Elka Tiškina stands in front of the house that she says has been left uninhabitable by illegal mining. Photo: Greenpeace Bulgaria

Elka Tiškina’s mother, Petranka Malcheva, was still fighting to be heard by local authorities when she died in 2013, aware that the foundations of her house were threatened by illegal mining taking place below her feet.

Two years later, serious subsidence has left the house too dangerous for anyone to live in. Mrs Malcheva had wished to pass the house, near Pernik, on to her grandson – but this is now impossible.

Before her death, Mrs Malcheva had written a series of increasingly desperate letters to local authorities. The letters, which are now being used as evidence in the ongoing legal case, tell the sad story of a woman living with the impact of uncontrolled coal mining in the town.

In one letter, she wrote:

“These three years I live in constant fear day and night that the house will collapse on top of me.”

Malcheva’s daughter Elka Tiškina is now taking legal action. After a long court battle her hopes were dented by a ruling earlier this month, but Tiškina is appealing that judgment, determined justice will prevail.

Elka Tiškina’s house is no longer safe. Photo: Greenpeace Bulgaria

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth and local campaign coalition Za Zemiata Access to Justice are assisting Tiškina with her legal challenge against the city.

The case centres on evidence that local authorities knew illegal tunnels were being dug and mining taking place but failed to protect her house by intervening to stop the mining.

Za Zemiata’s Genady Kondarev said:

“Mrs Malcheva worked tirelessly to avert the danger to her house – the mining was so near the surface she could hear it happening beneath her feet and she knew the entire neighbourhood was compromised by this illegal activity.

But, Kondarev says, while the authorities refused to act, Malcheva’s efforts now live on as the case continues:

“The municipality cannot claim that this damage is not their responsibility; it’s been proven that they knew what was happening and they should have acted in a meaningful way to stop it. Pernik suffers too much as a result of Bulgaria’s dirty coal industry.”

Dominique Doyle, energy lawyer at ClientEarth, said that what was happening in Bulgaria was part of wider pattern in Europe where coal interests were put ahead of people and the environment:

“People are being turned out of their homes, or seeing their property endangered, because of the hunger for the fuel, irrespective of its impact on nature and people.”

Cracks have formed on the inside and outside of Elka Tiškina’s house. Photo: Greenpeace Bulgaria

Doyle said that taking action in the courts is often the only route that people have to fight for their rights. She promised:

“We will continue fighting for justice for people and the climate where the wrong priorities are being championed by governments.”

The local authority denies responsibility and is attempting to shift the blame onto a mining company, which would have a right to dig in the area.

But the tunnels under Tiškina’s house were dug by the city’s “coal moles” – local people not working for any company but independently digging out the polluting fuel from under their neighbours’ feet.

A country entrenched in coal

Bulgaria’s energy system is still built on burning coal, but various studies have shown that the EU must phase out the use of coal for electricity generation by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown.

Coal is also burnt in local homes for heating, adding additional harmful pollution to urban air.

The city of Pernik is just a half hour’s drive from the Sofia. Pernik sits in the shadow of the 67-year-old Republika power station, which, like the region’s other plant Bobov Dol, spews toxic fumes into what is some of the most polluted air in Europe.

Government subsidies to Bulgarian coal plants have recently been investigated by the European Commission as a potential breach of strict state aid rules. The investigation was triggered by a complaint from ClientEarth, which has become increasingly active in applying the law to protect the environment in Bulgaria.

Tiškina is hoping to receive €55,000 in compensation for ‘material and moral damages’, but success in the case is far from certain.