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Court threat halts wetland destruction

The threat of court action has forced the Polish government to halt work on a controversial highway that would irreparably damage one of Europe’s most pristine wildlife sites.

Construction workers were today (August 1) due to resume work on the Via Baltica highway through the ancient Rospuda Valley but have been ordered to stop by Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski under pressure from the European Commission.

The Commission asked the European Court of Justice to issue a temporary injunction preventing work in the valley, forcing the Polish government to back down before the court hears the case.

The Rospuda Valley, close to the Lithuanian border in north-east Poland, hosts a treasure trove of wildlife, including lynx, otters and wolves. More than 20 rare or threatened bird species breed within 750 metres of the route the Polish government wants the road to take.

Dr Helen Byron, International Officer at the RSPB, said: “It is impossible to stress just how precious the Rospuda Valley is. Species that are already gone or just hanging on in the UK are thriving in the valley.

“There is an alternative to the Rospuda Valley route which should now be considered because it would cause far less environmental damage but still by-pass the towns currently blighted by heavy traffic.

“If the valley is eventually bulldozed, a devastating precedent will be set. Other irreplaceable sites threatened by the Via Baltica will be in the firing line while other countries that increasingly see protected sites as obstacles to development will be encouraged to test Europe’s legal resolve in the same way.”

Land has already been cleared either side of the Rospuda Valley, a jewel in the crown of Europe’s protected sites. White tailed and lesser-spotted eagles soar above its wetlands, which attract otters, beavers and cranes, while its primeval forests - woodlands that have barely been touched - host black grouse, wild boar and the shy and elusive lynx.

Elk and beavers are common in the valley where 20 orchid species are found. Dr Byron said: “It would be difficult to find a better site for wildlife in Europe yet Poland was hours away from felling trees in the Rospuda and sticking two fingers up at European law.”

The 277-mile Via Baltica will run from Warsaw to Helsinki passing through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

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.

The Rospuda Valley is part of the EU’s network of sites called Natura 2000 and has been legally protected since Poland joined the EU in 2004. The halting of work today will allow the Polish government to explain its plans to the European Commission.

Alistair Gammell, the RSPB’s International Director, said: “Poland joined the European Union for its economic benefits but with that comes the requirement to comply with the law. The Rospuda Valley is a very special place with many rare species that need protection. Poland should choose a less damaging route for this road.”

Izabela Flor, Director of the Polish Bird Protection Society, OTOP, said: “This case has developed into a real test case for the enforcement of European legislation in Poland. Poland receives significant funding from the EU, and must fulfil its duties as a member state to protect its unique European natural heritage.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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