Declaration in the Parliament and dissatisfaction of the civil society against the non-transparent continuation of the procedures for the Struma highway

With the new road connection, a specific contractor and a highway through the gorge are planned for BGN 1.2 billion without European funding

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Source: Coalition "To keep nature in Bulgaria"

Raya Lecheva

The gross violation of Bulgarian and European legislation with the opening of construction activities for the Struma highway through the Kresnen Gorge caused protests by the coalitions of non-governmental organizations and civil groups "To keep nature in Bulgaria" and "To save the Kresnen gorge". The non-transparent continuation of the procedures simply to continue the construction was also the subject of a debate and reading of a declaration in the parliament on the subject by "Continuing the Change" - "Democratic Bulgaria" (PP-DB).

Environmentalists, rafters and local citizens are adamant that the "first sod" of a circular connection between the gorge and the constructed section in the direction of Sandanski completes a series of violations by Minister Shishkov during the approval of the construction. With this road connection, a specific contractor and an inadmissible option for a highway through the gorge for BGN 1.2 billion without European funding are planned, according to the environmental organizations.

They recall that on May 11, 2023, after protests in front of the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, the Minister of Regional Development Ivan Shishkov said that the starting construction does not predetermine the choice of an alternative for the construction of the Struma highway in the region of Kresna and Kresna gorge and that this choice is to be made by the Minister of Environment and Water.

However, the minister kept silent that as early as April 6, 2023, 35 days before the May 11 protests, the Road Infrastructure Agency (RIA) concluded the contracts for the construction of the entire highway worth BGN 1.2 billion. These contracts, concluded under the leadership of MRRB, completely and definitively determine that the illegal and dangerous alternative proposed in 2017 will be built, namely that the lane to Greece will pass through the Kresna gorge, and the one in the opposite direction - outside it.

This option is not a motorway, but a first-class road, setting one-way traffic through the area of the Kresna gorge protected by the European Natura 2000 network. In addition, it makes it difficult for local residents to access the regional center of Blagoevgrad, does not fulfill explicit European requirements for carrying out a compatibility assessment and does not meet European standards for a motorway.

Minister Shishkov systematically hides from the public the project for "optimization" of the route of the Struma highway in the Kresna area and the Kresnen gorge, which was submitted by the API on April 5, 2023 to the Ministry of the Environment. Only the "alternative" from 2017, which is dangerous for life, health of people and nature, is being processed with the agency's project.

On April 27, 2023, API and the contractors agree that the construction of the highway will begin after the Ministry of Environment and Water approves the "optimized" version. It is clear from Minister Shishkov's reply dated May 15, 2023 to a question from MP Daniela Bozhinova from the Green Movement/PP-DB that the Ministry of Education and Culture has given such approval, stating that there is no need for environmental impact assessments and for compatibility with the European nature protection network Natura 2000.

Minister Shishkov also does not mention that on July 7, 2017, Bulgaria agreed with the European Commission (EC) to receive the funds for the construction of the lots of the Struma highway between Kresna and Sandanski and between Blagoevgrad and Simitli (lots 3.1 and 3.3) - with the express condition from the EC not to build the road junctions to the lot in the area of Kresna and the gorge, so as not to predetermine the choice of an alternative.

Despite all these facts, on May 16, 2023, Minister Shishkov broke ground on the road junction near Kresna, part of the GERB version of 2017. With this sod, the construction of not only the road junction, but also the entire highway according to this variant, began. Nevertheless, the minister continued to mislead the media and the public by saying again - "we have not determined and do not predetermine the choice of a construction option".

The environmentalist coalitions warn that not only the Bulgarian society will resist with protests, but also such a construction will be paid for entirely from the taxpayers' pockets, and will be followed by criminal procedures of the European Commission for violating two directives - the Directive on natural habitats and The Road Safety Directive.

In the parliament today, PP-DB read a declaration against the non-transparent procedures of the caretaker government. "Last week, we accidentally found out that on April 6 of this year, the Road Infrastructure Agency quietly concluded contracts for the implementation of the Struma AM project (lot 3.2.2) and road connections in the section that is in the Kresna gorge", said the deputy chairman of the parliamentary group Vladislav Panev.

Usually, large infrastructure projects are "bathed" in public attention and the first sods are broken with much fanfare, he commented. What is the reason, however, that none of the rulers announced in advance the two contracts signed on April 6, for the construction of 27 km east of the Kresna gorge for BGN 1.2 billion, comments Panev.

AM "Struma" should be built, but for more than a decade this has not happened, no way has been found for the realization of this project, provided funding from the European Union is secured. Vladislav Panev pointed out that the blame for this has been transferred to civil organizations, residents of the area and local small businesses for years. He specified that the proposal of the caretaker government and of many regular governments before it was not for the construction of a highway, but for the construction of a first-class road, divided into two one-way routes, one of which is the existing one through the Kresna gorge, and the other through the eastern bypass in question.

Panev pointed out that the construction of the "Struma" highway is a priority project for both Bulgaria and the EU. The financing provided by the European funds is for a trans-European highway, not a first-class road, noted Panev. Thus, this dubious project will have to be financed in the end from the Republican budget, which would also have a negative impact on the declared deficit of 6.4 percent of the caretaker government, if the first payments happen in 2023, he believes.

He noted that with the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of 2017, it was chosen as an option for the route of the highway to Greece to use the existing E-79 through the Kresna gorge, and to build a completely new eastbound one in the direction of Sofia route.

"The contracts are currently for this eastern route, and when it is ready, the rehabilitation of E-79 will begin. The section will not actually have the gauge of a highway, but will be a one-way high-speed section, i.e. without an emergency lane and a speed limit of 90 km/h," Vladislav Panev said.

"We know that we cannot expect much from the caretaker government, which has to fulfill given orders, but we want to assure the public that we will fight with all legal means and political methods to build a fast and safe Struma freeway outside the populated areas, while observing road safety, protecting the interests of all people and preserving the unique biodiversity in the Kresnen gorge," Panev concluded.

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