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Bridging the Gap?

Article compiled based on wire reports (als)July 17, 2007

The European Commission said it would resume court action against Poland if the country goes ahead with the construction of a highway through an environmentally fragile forest. Poland said building will restart Aug. 1.

The proposed highway site: Rospuda ValleyImage: Piotr Malczewski

Poland announced on Tuesday that work would continue on Aug. 1 on the controversial Via Baltica highway through a section of virgin forest in the northeast Rospuda Valley, near the border with Lithuania.

However, European Commission spokeswoman on environmental affairs, Barbara Helfferich, said the EU executive would not hesitate to take Poland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) once again to get the road work halted.

"We have a letter ready to be sent to the court to ask for interim measures and they can be applied very quickly," she told AFP news agency.

Orchideenart Cypripedium calceolus
Poland has 31 orchid species, 19 of which can be found in the Rospuda ValleyImage: WWF Poland Archive

She added that Poland had not officially informed the Commission that it would resume roadwork.

"If they resume, then the Commission would definitely send the letter," she said.

Unique habitat

The Rospuda marshlands and surrounding area are the world's most important breeding grounds for the endangered aquatic warbler. The region is also home to rare spotted eagles, lynx and wolves.

The planned "Via Baltica" highway, however, is intended as a new, major corridor for the Baltic states meant to ease traffic and thus trade between eastern and western Europe.

To cut down on traffic flow near the town of Augustow, Polish transport officials foresee building a bypass road that would cut right through the Rospuda River valley. EU authorities consider the area to be "a unique wetland system."

Currently, some 4,500 heavy goods trucks use Poland's existing, one-lane Route Eight every day on their way to and from the Lithuanian border, with the road traveling right through the center of Augustow.

With the threat of legal action by the EU, Poland had said it would halt construction until the end of the nesting period for a several different rare bird species. That would be roughly until the end of this month.

Karte Via Baltica Optionen
Alternative highway routes as proposed by activistsImage: Tomasz Cofta

With the halt to the roadworks, the European Commission then froze its action at the ECJ, Europe's highest court.

Nonetheless, the EU had earmarked funds for Poland in the 2007-2013 budget, but none of them have been allocated as yet.

Warsaw has said it will pay for the Rospuda River bypass with its own funds.