Poland holds off resuming controversial roadworks at center of environmental clash with Brussels

Poland will hold off building a highway in a sensitive wetland zone pending a ruling by Europe’s top court on whether the project breaches EU environmental rules, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said early this week.”We need to show restraint,” Kaczynski said in an interview with Polish public radio, a day after the European Commission stepped up the pressure by asking the European Court of Justice to impose an injunction on construction in the Rospuda Valley in northeast Poland.Resuming work at this stage would have a ?negative impact? on the wider highway project of which it is part, Kaczynski said.The Rospuda Valley highway plan ? which is just one section of the planned “Via Baltica” project to improve links between the Baltic states, Poland and the rest of the EU ? has set Warsaw on a collision course with Brussels.The EC, the EU?s executive arm, describes the valley as a ?unique wetland system? and says its animal and plant life must be protected.But Polish officials have repeatedly denied that the 40-kilometer (25-mile) stretch of road, which is also meant to ease the current burden of truck traffic through the nearby town of Augustow, would breach the environmental rules of the 27-nation EU.?We are going to win this case,? Kaczynski said.”We are going to stop work now in order to resume it after we’ve won,” he added.Work will meanwhile continue on uncontested parts of the Via Baltica, he said.Poland hopes to get almost 481 mln euro ($657 mln) in EU funds for the Via Baltica, but the money could be in jeopardy if Warsaw breaches EU environmental rules.EC environmental spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich said Brussels was waiting for Warsaw to put in writing its pledge to freeze construction in the Rospuda Valley.”Nothing will happen until the Polish government gives official confirmation,” she told AFP.”Then we will need to analyze it to see if there are sufficient guarantees to enable us to withdraw our legal action,? she added.If the case goes ahead, there is no deadline for a ruling, said European Court spokesman Chris Fretwell.The EC fired a warning shot against Warsaw at the European Court earlier this year.Poland suspended initial work at the site in March citing the bird-breeding season as the reason, rather than the legal clash.Polish authorities had announced that construction would resume this week.Greenpeace, which is also deeply opposed to the project, set up camp briefly at the construction site earlier this year.Environmental activists pitched tents there again on Monday, but decided to leave on Tuesday morning.The Rospuda project has been in the pipeline for 15 years, well before Poland joined the EU in 2004, and many residents of Augustow are exasperated over the delays.Poland?s current single-lane Route Eight, the main highway to and from Lithuania, cuts through the center of the town of 30,000 people.Many locals say they can no longer stand the noise, pollution and risk of fatal accidents caused by the 4,500 heavy goods vehicles which rumble through every day.On Monday, hundreds of angry residents set up a blockade in the town, halting truck traffic until the early hours of Tuesday and causing a huge tailback.Polish authorities note that the highway project includes a pillared bridge across the valley, and say they have picked the least-damaging option available.Environmental campaigners, however, charge that the planners failed to give proper consideration to an alternative route skirting the valley.
 

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