Road builders told they could be heading for fines

Polish campaigners are trying a new tactic to thwart plans to build a motorway through protected wetlands by telling construction companies they could be forced to pay for the environmental damage they cause.

A major road, the Via Baltica, which aims to link Prague to Helsinki via Poland looks set to carve its path through the wetlands of the beautiful Rospunda Valley and for months an alliance of environmental NGOs in Brussells and Warsaw have been fighting to have the plans changed.

The road is economically attractive for both the Scandinavian and Baltic states as it will open trade between recent accession states and Northern Europe, but the link comes with an environmental price tag.

Past campaigns have seen the groups targeting the banks considering financing the project and trying to persuade the government that its proposals are in breach of European law.

But this is the first time the construction companies have found themselves in the firing line as activists argue that the polluter pays principle could be applied to those causing environmental damage by other means, regardless of whether or not they were working on a government contract.

Civil engineers Budimex-Dromex have won the tender to build the stretch of the Via Baltica and were last week warned by WWF Poland, the Polish Green Network, CEE Bankwatch, Birdlife International and the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP) that it will be financially responsible for the damage inflicted on nature.

The environmental groups based their argument on a new EU Directive on environmental liability which places responsibility for damage caused not only on investors or authorities but also on operators – those companies working on the front-line of projects that damage the environment.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, policy coordinator for CEE Bankwatch Network, said: “Although we have suggested a better and greener alternative, the current bypass route around the town of Augustow that is part of the Via Baltica is guaranteed to cause damage as it runs right through the wetlands in the Rospuda Valley.

“The local authority knows this, the Polish government knows this, the European Commission has verified this, and now the company should be aware that it will be financially liable for the damage.”

In December 2006 the European Commission launched legal procedures against the Polish government for consenting to a series of eight road developments along the Via Baltica route which are likely to damage important and protected sites.

The road developments as they are currently proposed run through the Augustow and Knyszyn primeval forests and the Biebrza Marshes National Park.

These areas contain a broad array of threatened wildlife including wolf, lynx and both lesser-spotted and white-tailed eagles.

Sam Bond

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