Rospuda Valley becomes environmental battleground

Posted: 30 August 2007

Author: Agnieszka Gorczynska

Poland and the Europeam Union are now at odds over the future of the pristine Rospunda Valley in north-east of the country. It is an area crammed with outstanding wildlife, but earmarked as the route for a badly-needed motorway to the Baltic states. This new report brings the story up to date

The clash of priorities has divided public opinion in Poland itself and has now set the country on collision course with the European Union.

The European Commission asked the European Court of Justice on 30 July 2007 to take interim measures to ensure Poland does not go ahead with the construction of a road. The Commission's application for urgent action by the Court follows the Polish government's failure to give an undertaking that it would not start construction work on the Augustow bypass through the valley on 1 August.

As Poland failed to respond satisfactorily to the Commission's final warning, the Commission took Poland to the ECJ over the planned construction of the Augustow bypass and another road, the Wasilkow bypass, in March 2007 due to the damage they would cause to natural areas of European importance. The Commission also decided that it would ask the Court to issue an order suspending work on the projects if necessary.

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 over these two roads, known respectively as the Augustow and Wasilkow bypasses.

In environmental terms, the valley is a jewel. Yet it sits astride the route for one of Europe's most ambitious road schemes, the so-called Via Baltica expressway from Warsaw to Helsinki, which will pass through the Baltic states. The section of the new road which is intended to be the bypass for the small town of Augustow, where two routes from Warsaw join, is planned to go right through the valley's heart.

Rospuda is part of the Augustow primeval forest special protection area (SPA), declared under the EU's 1979 wild birds directive. This lays down that if a development is likely to harm a protected site, alternatives have to be explored. Polish environmentalists have complained to Brussels that this has not been properly done in Rospunda or in four more SPAs that the Via Baltica is likely to damage."Progress in the 21st century should not be measured by the number of trucks passing through the most pristine area in Poland' said Maciej Muskat from Greenpeace Poland.

The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, has accepted the arguments of environmentalists, and asked the Polish government to refrain from pushing the road through the valley - or face prosecution in the European Court of Justice.

An environmental assessment for the Polish section of the road is still underway but the government had pushed ahead with the Rospuda Valley route because it took traffic away from the town of Augustow, which is south of the valley. The shorter alternative would do that too and could be funded by the EU, unlike the Valley proposal. The terrain of the valley means a 500-metre viaduct would be built on stilts planted in concrete sunk deep into rare and unspoilt peat bogs in the Rospuda River flood plain.

Whatever happens, the government will not have it all its own way. Although the main road protesters' camp has broken up for the moment, a core of activists remains alert for the approach of bulldozers or men wielding chainsaws.

Related link:

Death sentence threatens Poland's Rospuda Valley