Construction of Belgrade’s Vinča incinerator officially started last year, so why have Serbian authorities opened a new public consultation on an updated environmental study? Annulling all previous approvals immediately is the only way to give this process any integrity.
Pippa Gallop, CEE Bankwatch Network, Natalija Stojmenović, Ne Davimo Beograd | 1 October 2020
Around two years ago, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) opened a public consultation on an environmental and social assessment for the Vinča waste incinerator, landfill rehabilitation, landfill gas facility and new landfill. The bank was considering financing the project and wanted to make sure that an environmental and social assessment meeting its own standards was carried out. So far, so good.
Ne Davimo Beograd and A11 from Belgrade, together with Bankwatch, submitted 92 pages of comments on the study, reflecting major deficiencies, for example a lack of data on waste projections, a lack of non-incineration alternatives, a failure to commit to the new EU Waste Incineration BREF standards being developed at the time, and the project’s negative impact on Serbia’s ability to meet EU circular economy targets.
When the responses came, they were clearly written by the project sponsor, Beo Clean Energy, without any additional input from the bank. As a result, our most important comments – eg. on the potential clashes with EU recycling targets, and the lack of recycling/prevention elements within the project – were put aside on the grounds that they were not the company’s responsibility. Yet its public-private partnership contract would clearly dictate Belgrade’s whole waste management system, locking the city into long-term incineration.
This was already in conflict with the Aarhus Convention requirement that public participation must take place at an early stage when all options are still open, and things have only got worse since then.
Further attempts to clarify with the EBRD raised more questions than they answered. Tiny snippets of contradictory information were accompanied by bland assurances that the bank was satisfied with the Serbian authorities’ answers to its questions – presumably implying that we ought to be satisfied too. Clearly, we weren’t. We lodged an official complaint to the bank’s recourse mechanism.
Meanwhile in late June 2019, the Serbian Ministry of Environment opened a national level consultation on two environmental impact studies – one for the incinerator and landfill gas plant, and one for the new landfill.
The national-level studies were more or less a rehashed version of the study presented to the EBRD, with the same factual mistakes, old data, missing waste projections and missing non-incineration alternatives. Despite the fact that the EU had earlier in June approved new pollution control standards called the Waste Incineration BREF, the national-level environmental study for the incinerator failed to demonstrate that the plant would adhere to the new rules.
Apart from wasting our time by having to comment on hundreds of pages of similar text twice in different formats, it was far from clear what either of these processes achieved. None of our substantial comments were taken into account – only a few minor details – and in September 2019 the Ministry of Environment approved the environmental impact assessment while the EBRD approved financing for the project.
The project promoters were clearly in a hurry, as the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure issued the construction permit for the project on 16 August 2019 – more than a month before the environmental impact assessment process was complete, thus undermining the outcome of the process and rendering it largely pointless.
Even an initial approval for the project to receive renewable energy incentives was issued by the Ministry of Mining and Energy on 27 September before the environmental assessment was approved, and before the final construction confirmation was issued by the Ministry of Construction on 8 October. This rendered it illegal both in terms of Serbian law and under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which is binding on Serbia under the Energy Community Treaty.
Under Serbian law, the approval for incentives should only have been issued once construction could legally start, while under the Renewable Energy Directive, only the biodegradable fraction of the waste can count as renewable, but the subsidies were granted for electricity from the whole plant.
Fast forward to summer 2020: Suddenly the Ministry of Environment started a new scoping process for an updated environmental assessment.
The stated reason was that the study needed to be brought into line with the EU Waste Incineration BREF – yes, the same one that had been approved in June 2019, before the previous environmental impact assessment consultation, and the same one that we’d been highlighting in our communication with the EBRD for two years already.
So here we are again, on Groundhog Day, stuck in a never-ending cycle of submitting comments on environmental assessments of the Vinča incinerator, still with no basic data justifying the project.
In fact, in the meantime, we found data which proves the project will conflict with EU circular economy targets, and the EIB and EC agree with us. But the EBRD, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the Austrian Development Bank are sticking stubbornly with the project.
But this time it’s even weirder, as the Ministry has not made it clear whether it has annulled the previous permits and approvals for the project or not, and it is not clear whether construction on the actual incinerator has started.
Clearly this process has absolutely no integrity unless it can actually impact on the project and unless all options – including not building the incinerator – are still open.
In fact, given the fact that several appeals, lawsuits and legal complaints are pending against the project and the topsy-turvy permitting process, the most logical thing for the competent Serbian Ministries to do now would be to annul all the previous approvals and permits, and treat this environmental impact assessment as a new one starting from scratch. They will surely be reluctant, but the alternative might take even longer.
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