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IP/07/263

Brussels, 28 February 2007

Poland: Commission takes urgent action to protect threatened wildlife habitats

The European Commission has sent Poland a final warning concerning the damage that will be done to primeval woodland and other natural habitats of European importance if the construction of the Augustow bypass and the Wasilkow bypass goes ahead. The Commission supports the upgrading of road infrastructure in Poland – including along the Helsinki-Warsaw road corridor in the north-eastern part of the country – but it does not accept that the irreversible damage that will be caused by the bypasses is either necessary or justified. As clearing work has either started or is about to start on these two construction projects the Commission is treating the matter as urgent and has asked Poland to respond within one week.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "I urge the Polish Government to once more consider ways of building these bypasses without causing such serious environmental damage. I believe that Poland has everything to gain by building new infrastructure without sacrificing its most precious natural heritage."

Augustow and Wasilkow bypasses

In February 2007 the Polish authorities gave contractors the green light to start construction work on bypasses in important nature sites in the Rospuda river valley and Puszcza Knyszynska in north-eastern Poland. As a result the Commission has accelerated an existing infringement procedure against Poland on the Augustow and Wasilkow bypasses by sending Poland a final warning requesting that it respond within one week.

Failure by Poland to respond satisfactorily could result in the Commission taking early action in the European Court of Justice. Early action might include the Commission requesting the Court to issue an order suspending the work on the projects pending a hearing of the case. In December 2006 the Commission obtained such an order when the ECJ suspended the law on the hunting of the Sterling bird species in the Italian region of Liguria.

Poland has given the official green light for the two construction projects to go ahead, even though the Commission sent it a first warning letter in December 2006 for eight road projects in north-eastern Poland, including the Augustow and Wasilkow bypasses.

The 17.1 kilometre Augustow bypass would involve building an expressway which would cut through the Rospuda river valley. The valley contains a rare mosaic of unspoilt habitats within one of the largest and best maintained primeval forests in Central Europe. The expressway would cross a unique wetland system considered to be of exceptional European value by many peat-bog specialists.

The valley is a Special Protection Area (SPA)[1] designated under the Wild Birds Directive[2] and should also benefit from protection under the Habitats Directive[3] on account of its rare habitats, although Poland has not yet designated it. The final construction permit was issued on 9 February 2007. On the same day the developer announced that work would start by the end of February.

Poland denies that European nature legislation requires it to protect this site by cancelling the project. The Polish authorities I claim that by assessing the damage the project will do, looking at alternatives and offering compensatory measures – such as taking some forest out of production, creating ponds, blocking small streams to bring up water level in drainage channels, planting trees, and restoring and managing wet meadows - it has complied with all protection requirements. They argue that the project is of overriding interest on road safety grounds. The Commission considers that Poland has a duty to protect this site and that assessments and examination of alternatives are weak and unconvincing. The Commission considers that road safety could be adequately addressed by other routes that would constitute valid alternatives, thus avoiding irreparable damage to this protected site. As for the compensatory measures offered, these do not offset the destruction of unique natural features.

The 5.2 kilometre Wasilkow bypass would run in part through another SPA[4] which contains habitats protected under the Birds Directive and should be designated as a Site of Community Importance under the Habitats Directive. Despite this the final construction permit was issued on 2 February 2007 and tree-cutting started on 15 February 2007. Poland accepts that the SPA requires protection but claims it has properly assessed and approved the project, and has offered sufficient compensatory measures. The Commission considers the assessment is not adequate to justify the decision to cause significant environmental damage.

More information about EU nature protection policies is available at:

http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/nature/home.htm

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

http://ec.europa.eu/community_law/eulaw/index_en.htm#infractions


[1] Puszcza Augustowska

[2] Directive 79/409/EEC.

[3] Directive 92/43/EEC.

[4] Puszcza Knyszynska


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