Poland faces court over motorway through protected wetlands

The EU threatened legal action against Poland on Tuesday over the construction of a motorway that would destroy Europe's only remaining ancient peat land if built.

As hundreds of campaigners stayed put in tents pitched on snowy ground in Eastern Poland this week, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas personally warned Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko that Europe can seek to stop the project through a court order, and sent a letter to Warsaw asking ministers to put the construction on hold.

With peat bogs that formed over 10,000 years and rare species of plants and animals, the Rospuda valley is protected under EU law as a Natura 2000 conservation site. Despite this, the Polish government has so far been intent on letting the motorway plans to go ahead, but now seems to be reconsidering following the EU warnings.

“If we do not have a positive reaction from the Polish government to the letter that I am going to send today, then we shall start the accelerated procedure. It should be done as soon as possible in order to avoid and avert the irreparable destruction of the habitats in that area of Poland,” Stavros Dimas said.

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has since said his government may reconsider the route. He had previously warned that giving in to the EU on Rospuda would set a dangerous precedent that could harm the development of the country.

The controversial section of motorway would provide a bypass for the town of Augustow in the Polish lake district. While environmental campaigners agree the bypass is necessary, they are proposing an alternative route which would come at a lower financial as well as environmental cost (see related story).

“The option we are proposing is maybe 3km longer, and much cheaper because it sidesteps the need to plough through these wetlands,” Jacek Winiarski of Greenpeace Poland, one of the groups campaigning on Rospuda, told edie.

With the entry of bulldozers into the valley imminent, protests have spread across Poland. Thousands took to the streets of 13 Polish cities on Sunday and 450 protesters continue their sit-in protests at a camp in the snow-covered valley itself. Last summer, 150,000 holiday-goers signed a petition against the plans, reflecting the area’s status as a national symbol of wild nature for many people.

Campaigners say the construction of a 500m flyover across the peat land would lead to the extinction of species and destroy a unique European ecosystem.

“If this road is built through Rospuda valley, then the last peat lands of this kind West of the Ural mountains will be destroyed,” said Maciej Muskat of Greenpeace Poland.

The road would modify the water balance of the wetlands, cut across the migration routes of animals including big mammals like lynx and wolves, as well as causing noise which would disturb the entire ecosystem.

The construction work itself would cause even greater damage as 100-year old pines are chopped down and heavy machinery is brought in.

The Augustow bypass is part of Via Baltica, a mega-motorway that is to connect Western countries with Finland via Poland and Estonia and crosses numerous national parks. In the face of growing urgency campaigners decided to concentrate their efforts on saving Rospuda valley as the most unique of the natural areas.

They chose to focus on Rospuda “for emotional as well as scientific reasons,” Jacek Winarski said – Rospuda valley is both a popular holiday destination whose wild nature many Poles remember from childhood holidays and a unique peat land home to endemic species of plants and rare and protected birds and mammals.

Local people in the Augustow region are divided on the issue. While some oppose the road and say it would bring destruction of their natural heritage, others believe it would bring jobs, easing the area’s high unemployment, as well as stopping the stream of lorries currently tearing through the town centre.

Environmentalists said their opposition was targeted at the chosen route and acknowledged the need for a bypass.

“We hope that work on an alternative route for a bypass for the Augostow bypass, which is essential for the town’s residents, begin as soon as possible,” said a spokesman for Greenpeace Poland.

More English-language information on the Rospuda valley can be found here.

Goska Romanowicz

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