European Commission takes Poland to court to protect threatened wildlife habitats
European Commission - IP/07/369 21/03/2007
Brussels, 21 March 2007
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."
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) designated under the Wild Birds Directive and should also benefit from protection under the Habitats Directive 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.
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.
 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.
 Puszcza Augustowska
 Directive 79/409/EEC.
 Directive 92/43/EEC.
 Puszcza Knyszynska