The motorway project and the Kresna gorge: key facts
Part of the magnificent Bulgarian and European biodiversity will be lost forever if Struma motorway is built through the Kresna gorge in Southwest Bulgaria. The Kresna gorge is a natural heritage of European importance as well as an area where local people have the potential to develop tourism and sustainable agriculture. Struma motorway is part of Corridor No. 4 linking Dresden, Budapest, Sofia and Istanbul with an additional Sofia-Thessaloniki link. The project has been on the agenda since 1998.
If constructed THROUGH the gorge, the motorway will have a detrimental impact on hundreds of protected species and their habitats. The Kresna gorge is narrow with steep slopes and the construction work itself will cause the irreversible destruction of the protected habitats, cutting the riverbanks of the Struma River.
During the years any construction of a motorway through the gorge has been assessed as unacceptable (including the zero alternative). The “zero alternative” means leaving the road as it is now – no construction.
In 2001 the Environmental Commissioner Margot Wallström pointed the need for development of alternatives that would prevent the negative impacts on the Kresna gorge, as a future NATURA 2000 site and comply with the requirements of the Habitat and Birds directives. The Bern Convention in 2002, based on a on-spot appraisal concluded that:
“The passage of a road in the gorge (alternatives zero, red and green), obligatorily involving irreversible impacts of great influence in a single site of recognized importance and without possible measures of compensation, is thus unacceptable”.
Bern Convention on spot report, 2002
Numerous different routes had been developed since and again assessed in 2008 during an Environmental Impact and Appropriate Assessment procedures. In the 2008 Ministry of Environment’s EIA decision one reads:
“Any motorway construction in the gorge and the option to maintain the current road for international traffic (the so called zero option) was deemed not in compliance with the EU Habitats Directive because of the detrimental impacts on the protected biodiversity and habitats that could not be mitigated”.
2008 EIA/ AA decision
In 2008 a favourable solution for the construction of Struma motorway was found for the Kresna gorge – section (Lot 3.2). It was agreed during the Environmental Impact and Appropriate Assessment (EIA/AA) procedures in 2008 that a 13-km tunnel is considered to be the most feasible option from nine assessed route-variants. This was a result of a strong and united campaign to save the Kresna gorge. It involved years of protests, petitions, correspondence with Bulgarian and European authorities. Several missions of Members of the European Parliament, the Bern convention and international journalists were conducted during the years. The tunnel option was proposed by the local people, during EIA consultations and is in-line with the European and Bulgarian environmental legislation.
The new conflict:
As early as 2009 Bulgarian authorities have been working against the approved route – the long tunnel. Firstly by postponing the construction of the whole Lot 3 (62 km) for the period 2014-2020. Secondly by diverting valuable funds away from research and design of the tunnel, thus violating one of the main conditions laid down in the EIA permit.
During planning phase for the Krupnik-Kresna section (Kresna gorge) it is “priority to design the route for the section in order to avoid the zero alternative for the section, when all other sections are completed.” (EIA/AA decision 2008, p.4)
The postponed preparations lead the European Commission to approve in 2013 EUR 274 million funding only for the construction of Lots 1, 2 and 4 of the Struma Motorway – the sections north and south of the gorge – and for a technical preparation of Lot 3. The actual construction of the tunnel was postponed for the 2014 – 2020 financial period. EC, however, provided the money with the condition that the tunnel/s bypassing Kresna gorge will be constructed as soon as possible:
“ …there needs to be absolute assurance that lot 3 of the Struma Motorway will be realised by means of one or more tunnels bypassing the Kresna gorge. The tunnel option is a prerequisite for financing of lot 2 and lot 4, yet the lack of progress on the technical preparation of the construction of the tunnel(s) does not provide sufficient confidence that this option might not be abandoned at some point in the future.”
European Commission First interruption letter Ref. Ares(2012)226301 – 28/02/2012
Today when the three other sections of Struma motorway are already completed, the Bulgarian authorities, along with construction companies, again, have the intention to build the motorway right through the gorge.
The government spent 3 years and EUR 4 million EU technical assistance grant aimed for tunnel design for the “development” of the arguments against the tunnel. The EU funds were used for a geological study, which, based on questionable assumptions, recommends an “alternative” option passing through the gorge, despite previous assessments contesting the environmental non-feasibility of such a route for the motorway construction.