We recognise the need for transport infrastructure improvements in North-East Poland, but believe these must be planned in accordance with European law to ensure truly sustainable projects that integrate nature considerations.
We want the Polish government to implement their strategic decision to route the international road corridor via Lomza which was based on the results of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and construct this as a matter of urgency. When constructed the new road via Lomza will take most of the current and growing international transit traffic from the existing road through Bialystok which cuts the Natura 2000 sites.
We want the Polish authorities to plan individual road schemes with proper regard to nature in accordance with the requirements of the EU nature laws. We are delighted the Polish authorities have now made a decision on Augustow Bypass which protects Rospuda Valley. We urge them to treat this project as a priority to bring relief to the people of Augustow who have had to cope with heavy transit traffic for much longer than necessary because of the Polish authorities' approach to project planning and initial insistence that the project be built through Rospuda Valley.
In addition to the Via Baltica corridor, the Polish authorities are also intensifying plans for other road developments in NE Poland including re-branding of the Bialystok route for Via Baltica as the 'Via Carpatia'. If these plans go ahead (and before they do we believe the need for them should be examined thoroughly) they must be planned in accordance with EU nature and impact assessment laws.
We want the Polish Road Agency to reconsider the scale of planned upgrades of individual road projects along the old 'Via Baltica' route such as Sztabin bypass which will affect Biebrza Marshes and section through Knyszyn Forest. We hope the European Commission will withhold Structural Funding to Poland until the Polish authorities take nature protection seriously in programme and project planning.
We have helped a coalition of Polish NGOs prepare a complaint to the European Commission – submitted in January 2006. Since submission of the complaint, we have played a key role helping OTOP/BirdLife International provide the Commission with information about developments on the case in Poland, including submission of numerous formal updates to the complaint.
We have worked hard to raise the profile of the case with MEPs – through submission of a Petition to the European Parliament's Petitions Committee in 2006, participation in MEP visits to Poland, MEP briefings – and with the media.
We support the Polish NGOs in keeping the Bern Convention officials informed and following the case. We are also supporting OTOP in their work through the planning process and legal activities in Poland.
Key results to date
In December 2006 the European Commission opened a legal case and called on Poland to halt the road projects breaching the EU nature directives.
In October 2007 there was a change of Polish Government and the new Environment and Infrastructure Ministers established a 'Round Table' to seek a compromise solution for Augustow Bypass, in which the Polish NGOs participated. As an outcome of the Round Table a new environmental assessment was carried out looking at three different routes – two going around rather than through the valley.
Based on the results of this new study, in March 2009 the Polish Prime Minister announced that his Government would avoid building a highway through the Rospuda Valley Natura 2000 site. Instead, they will solve the traffic problems by building the road on an alternative route that avoids the Valley.
In recognition of this decision in April 2009 the European Commission closed its legal case against Poland on the Rospuda Valley.
In summer 2008 the Polish authorities presented a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report to inform the choice of the Via Baltica route corridor for consultation. This SEA strongly recommends an alternative western route for Via Baltica via Lomza which would be much less damaging to Natura 2000 sites than the eastern route via Bialystok and is also shorter, cheaper and technically simpler.
In October 2009 the Polish authorities finally took a strategic decision based on this SEA to route the Via Baltica via Lomza. We now urge the authorities to change other strategic documents to implement this decision, in particular the current list of investments under the Polish Operational Programme 'Infrastructure & Environment' and the revision of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in Poland.
In December 2009 the Polish authorities issued the new consent for Augustow Bypass confirming that the road will bypass Augustow Primeval Forest and the magnificent Rospuda Valley. This project will be the first section of the Via Baltica built on the new (less damaging) route.
These decisions are a great victory for Europe's natural heritage and for all who care for it. They clearly show how infrastructure development and protection of Natura 2000 sites can go together. They show that where there is political will and respect for the EU legislation development goals can be achieved while effectively protecting the natural environment.
Overall, the situation with the Via Baltica case is looking much more positive with the Rospuda Valley decision and the strategic decision to route the Via Baltica via Lomza - these are fantastic steps forward - so there is a lot to celebrate already. However, before we sit back completely we we want to see these decisions implemented and these roads constructed as a matter of urgency, so it's not just a paper victory.
There are also concerns Poland is still going to upgrade the other projects on the old Bialystok route for Via Baltica. With the new route for the Via Baltica corridor settled, the scale of the planned projects on the old route need to be reconsidered to avoid damage to Natura 2000 sites.
Furthermore, the Polish Government is now attempting to include in the Polish TEN-T network a new road corridor - 'Via Carpatia' - that partially overlaps with old 'Via Baltica'route. The 620 kilometres planned Via Carpatia international road corridor in Poland would affect 18 existing and planned Natura 2000 sites. Given the strategic importance of the Via Baltica case - potential impacts on the individual sites and the precedent it sets - BirdLife will continue to follow it closely.