The Wolf of Varbovka: How Rumen Gaitanski, with Support by the Authorities, is Getting Closer to Building Bulgaria's Largest Waste Incinerator

A huge incinerator capable of burning the waste of all the towns and villages in Bulgaria. A project with risks of serious pollution which over the years has attracted hard-to-explain support from local and national authorities, sometimes crossing legal boundaries.

The Wolf of Varbovka, the new film by the Anti-Corruption Fund Foundation (ACF), recounts the attempts of Rumen Gaitansky “The Wolf” to build Bulgaria’s largest waste incinerator in one of the most fertile parts of the Danube Plain.

Абонирайте се за бюлетина на АКФ, за да научавате за най-новите ни разследвания и анализи:

С натискане на бутона потвърждавате, че сте запознати с Политиката ни за поверителност

In 2013, Gaitanski’s company Petrurgia was granted a concession[1] to mine basalt near the village of Varbovka, Municipality of Pavlikeni. For over a decade,  no action was taken, and to this day, basalt is still not mined.

In 2020, Petrurgia submitted a new investment proposal to manufacture stone wool from the basalt extracted from the concession. One disturbing element of the project – which subsequently caused large-scale civil protests in Pavlikeni – is the fact that the proposed plant would be fully powered by its own “energy source” – a waste incinerator[2].

The proposed capacity of the incinerator would make it the largest facility of this kind in Bulgaria.

“The construction of an incinerator with such capacity is neither a local nor a regional issue. It is a national issue, as it will concentrate all waste-related problems in Bulgaria in one location,” said Danita Zarichinova, an ecologist and member of the Environmental Expert Council at the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters (RIEW) – Veliko Tarnovo, which examined the project.

Under the proposal, the facility will operate 24 hours a day, burning 1,160 tonnes of RDF (refuse-derived fuel) daily. This is equal to 423,000 tonnes per year which is almost equal to the amount of waste generated by all settlements in Bulgaria combined (430,000 tonnes). These figures were mentioned in the environmental impact assessment report provided by the investor[3].

“The enormous capacity of the plant’s energy source raises doubts about the true nature of the business idea that Petrurgia wants to implement at Varbovka. Is it the case that the production of rock wool serves as a screen for the creation of the largest waste processing centre in Bulgaria and the Balkans”, said Lora Georgieva, a senior legal advisor at ACF.

The investor’s profile also provides grounds for such doubts. Since the 1990s, waste has been a central part of the business of Petrurgia’s owner, Rumen Gaitanski “The Wolf”. Companies related to Gaitanski have contracts to collect and transport the waste in many districts of Sofia and many towns and cities in the country.

Even more worryingly, the execution of Petrurgia’s project often goes beyond the reach of the law and enjoys hard-to-explain support from local and national authorities.

For example, in 2021 Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters – Veliko Tarnovo decided that there was no need for Petrurgia to submit a new environmental assessment report following the amendment to the spatial plan for the project site[4]. The regional inspectorate took this decision although the original plan, drawn up in 2013, had undergone fundamental changes. The space was transformed from a site for basalt extraction to a stone wool manufacturing facility with its power plant producing energy by burning RDF fuel, a process with many specific risks of air, water and soil pollution.

However, according to the then decision by RIEW – Veliko Tarnovo, the changes were “unlikely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and human health”[5].

The regional inspectorate made this assessment despite twice requesting and receiving an opinion from the Regional Health Inspectorate – Veliko Tarnovo that “the information submitted by the investor is not sufficient to conclude whether the project is hazardous to human health and the environment”[6].

Similar deficiencies are found in the environmental impact assessment report for the project submitted by the investor at the end of 2021.

The report fails to address the issue of the residues from the incineration process which, according to the manufacturer of the equipment, will be no less than 19% of all incinerated waste or more than 220 tonnes per day.

“There is nowhere for this hazardous waste to be transported and treated. There are two landfills for hazardous waste in the whole of Northern Bulgaria – in Sevlievo and Silistra. Their capacity would be filled in four months”, said Pencho Pandakov, an ecologist and hydrobiologist and member of the Environmental Expert Council.

The investor has also not proposed a reliable mechanism for the monitoring of harmful emissions, in particular persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and furans which are proven byproducts of solid waste incineration. There are also serious uncertainties regarding water use and the protection of aquatic resources.

“There are indications that highly polluted effluents will be discharged, some of them contaminated with impurities from bottom ash and bottom slags. There are many settlements below the point of discharge of the wastewater,” adds Pandakov.

Despite the lack of guarantees for citizens’ health, the Pavlikeni Municipality actively intervened on several occasions to facilitate the implementation of the project, often in violation of the law.

For example, the mayor of Pavlikeni, Emanuil Manolov, proposed, that the municipality sell to Gaitanski’s companies 63 decares of agricultural land owned by the municipality. The proposal was approved by the Municipal Council of Pavlikeni despite the fact that the sale was illegal as per art. 19 of the Act on the Ownership and Use of Agricultural Land.

In addition, the mayor of Pavlikeni, who was tasked with the administrative oversight of Petrurgia’s investment proposal, was in a possible conflict of interest as his sister worked for Petrurgia from 4 May 2020 until 1 February 2022 [7].

During this period, the mayor tabled five motions assisting the implementation of Petruria’s project. When questioned by journalists the mayor admitted that he had suggested that the developer appoint his sister as “the right person for the job”[8].

Although these facts were publicly known, the Anti-Corruption Commission found no conflict of interest in the mayor’s actions[9]. The commission ignored the fact that, on 31 January 2022, when the future of the project was being discussed by the Environmental Expert Council, Pavlikeni Municipality, represented by the Deputy Mayor, had voted in favour.  The vote coincided with the last working day of the mayor’s sister at Petrurgia.

The meeting lasted eight hours and resulted in a decision supporting the investment proposal with nine votes in favour, two against and six abstentions.

After the arrival of a new director[10] at the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters Veliko Tarnovo, a new meeting of the Environmental Expert Council was held on 24 April 2023. At this meeting, the investor failed to submit the additional documents requested by the Regional Health Inspectorate – Veliko Tarnovo and the council voted against the investment plan.

On 28 April 2023, RIEW’s director issued a decision against the investment proposal [11] citing the serious potential impacts on air, water and soil quality and the lack of adequate measures to mitigate the negative impacts and respond to accidental contamination.

The decision quotes the opinions of the Director of the Regional Health Inspectorate – Veliko Tarnovo from August 2022, according to which “the information in the investor’s environmental impact assessment is incomplete and inaccurate”, the health risk assessment does not cover all aspects and “does not prove definitively the lack of health risk for the population, nor does it propose effective measures to reduce the negative impact”. The Minister of Health also gave a negative opinion, noting the lack of data for an adequate health risk assessment, the insufficient qualitative and quantitative measures to prevent negative impacts, the lack of an assessment of the cumulative effect of the proposal and concluding that “the protection of human health is a national priority that takes precedence over the interests of individual citizens or businesses”.

Nevertheless, the investor has launched a legal battle to override the decision and implement the project.

For the time being, Petrurgia appears to be winning the battle.

In July 2023, Emil Zhelev, formerly a judge in the now-defunct Specialized Criminal Court and currently a judge at the Administrative Court – Sofia Region, revoked the decision of the director of Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters – Veliko Tarnovo. The case was heard expeditiously, and the grounds for its annulment are unsubstantiated.

Currently, the director of RIEW – Veliko Tarnovo and the civic association You Decide are appealing the decision of the Administrative Court – Sofia Region before the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC). The first hearing of the case was held on 15 April 2024.

In February 2024, the Supreme Administrative Court decided in favour of Petrurgia, upholding the decision of the Administrative Court – Veliko Tarnovo that a new assessment of the amended spatial plan of the Varbovka site was not necessary despite the fundamental changes subsequently introduced to the investment proposal.

“Taking into account the decisions of the administrative courts, we fear that there is a significant risk that SAC rules in favour of the investor.

This would clear the way for the incinerator project in Pavlikeni despite the repeated objections of most local residents and the documented environmental and health risks associated with the project’s implementation.

Given the exceptional level of public interest, we will continue to follow the case and inform the public about any decisions of the authorities that raise suspicions”, said Boyko Stankushev, director of the ACF.