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IP/07/369

Brussels, 21 March 2007

European Commission takes Poland to court to protect threatened wildlife habitats

The European Commission is taking Poland to the European Court of Justice over the construction of the Augustow and Wasilkow road bypasses through the Rospuda Valley. The construction of the two roads would damage important nature areas like primeval woodland and other natural habitats of European importance. The Commission supports the upgrading of road infrastructure in Poland but it does not accept the unjustified irreversible damage that will be caused by the bypasses. As work has started on these two construction projects the Commission is equally asking the Court of Justice for interim measures to ask Poland to suspend the works immediately.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "It is with regret that the Commission is bringing this case to the European Court of Justice. But this course of action is necessary if these precious natural sites of European significance are to be protected from irreparable damage. The Commission cannot accept the loss of such precious natural heritage."
Unsatisfactory response to final warning on 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 accelerated an existing infringement procedure against Poland on the Augustow and Wasilkow bypasses. Poland failed to respond satisfactorily to the Commission's final warning of 28 February. The Commission is thus taking early action against Poland in the European Court of Justice requesting that it issue an order suspending the work on the projects.[1]

Poland gives green light to projects despite Commission caution

The polish authorities gave the official green light for the two construction projects despite the Commission having sent Poland a first warning letter in December 2006 for eight road projects in the north-eastern part of the country - 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 scientists.

The valley is a Special Protection Area (SPA)[2] designated under the Wild Birds Directive[3] and should also benefit from protection under the Habitats Directive[4] 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 claim that by assessing the damage the project will do, looking at alternatives and offering compensatory measures it has complied with all protection requirements. Proposed compensatory measures include 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. 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[5] 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.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.
More information about EU nature protection policies is available at:
http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/nature/home.htm


[1] The Commission already obtained such an order in December 2006 when the ECJ suspended the law on the hunting of the Sterling bird species in the Italian region of Liguria.

[2] Puszcza Augustowska

[3] Directive 79/409/EEC.

[4] Directive 92/43/EEC.

[5] Puszcza Knyszynska


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