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Environmental NGOs welcome halting of Polish expressway construction

…but urge continued vigilance

Environmental NGOs, including BirdLife International, the CEE Bankwatch Network and Greenpeace, applaud the Polish government’s decision to halt imminent construction of the ‘Via Baltica’ expressway through the Rospuda Wetlands in north-east Poland, which are protected under EU law. On July 31, the Polish government commited to halt construction at the last minute, which meant that a further breach of EU environmental law and irreversible damage to part of Europe’s last remaining primeval wetlands and the pristine Rospuda Valley has been avoided. The organisations congratulate the European Commission on its robust action to prevent the destruction, especially its application on July 28 to the European Court of Justice for an interim measure to prevent works beginning within the Natura 2000 site. [See joint press release of BirdLife International, CEE Bankwatch Network, OTOP, WWF Poland, Greenpeace and Wetlands Conservation Centre of 30th of July 2007 at: http://www.birdlife.org/news/pr/2007/07/via_baltica.html ]However, while the Polish government pledged that works will not commence in Rospuda Valley Natura 2000 sites, other Polish Natura 2000 sites along the route of the international expressway linking Warsaw and Helsinki are still threatened. [The ‘Natura 2000’ network of the EU is a network of protected sites which, at about 18% of the EU’s territory, aims to reconcile human activities with nature conservation. Natura 2000 sites are not fenced-off areas, but encourage sustainable and nature friendly land-use and business. They are established under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, which are binding law for all EU Member States See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature ]

NGOs are particularly concerned about the Biebrza Valley, for which regional authorities issued an environmental consent earlier this year. This road includes the construction of a four-lane bridge plus an additional service road through the valley. Biebrza is renowned for its global importance for wildlife, attracting thousands of international visitors each year. Should the project go ahead, at least ten bird species which are protected under EU nature conservation law could be affected. For five of these species (Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Spotted Crake Porzana porzana, Little Crake Porzana parva, Corncrake Crex crex and Great Snipe Gallinago media) the Biebrza Valley forms key breeding area in Poland.BirdLife International, CEE Bankwatch Network and Greenpeace agree that EU funds should be allocated for the most appropriate route for the international corridor. Crucially a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) according to EU Legislation must be completed. For the moment, the Strategic Environmental Assessment Process is being conducted by the international consultancy group Scott-Wilson, contracted by the Polish National Road Agency. Unfortunately, the Polish government has not waited for the final analysis and has been pushing hard to build one of the particular variant of the international transportation corridor.

The NGOs believe that it is possible to find both an appropriate route for the international corridor and to construct a bypass for Augustow to alleviate safety problems without impacts on sites of European importance to nature.

Konstantin Kreiser, EU Policy Manager at BirdLife International said: "We urge the Commission and the Polish authorities to cooperate to find such solutions and secure EU funding for their early implementation.” The Polish authorities claim that constructing the Augustow Bypass on an alternative route would lead to long delays. However independent experts estimate that the road could be completed by 2012 [The alternative route is only slightly longer (2km) and provides a bypass for two towns. It is therefore a more cost effective option. SISKOM, an independent road design NGO which has proposed the alternative route for the Augustow Bypass believes it should be possible to complete this within 5-6 years if there is the will to do so and EU funds to support the project. The current Polish law (so called ‘special road act’ amended at the end of 2006) enables a much faster acquisition of land for infrastructure development, which was not previously possible]. In the meantime safety measures such as the installation of crash barriers should be introduced as well as traffic calming measures including road narrowing, roundabouts and speed bumps.

"We would urge the Polish government to re-examine a route for the road that will both preserve Rospuda’s unique natural heritage and spare Augustow residents their current traffic misery. The government should use the summer months to find a long-term solution in line with EU environmental law," said Maciek Muskat of Greenpeace.

4th July 2014