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EU gives Poland final warning over Via Baltica road project

European Union regulators warned Poland a second time about building a highway to Finland, clearing the way for a possible court order to halt the project over environmental concerns.

The European Commission sent the Polish government a final notice of objections to the planned Via Baltica road. The step by the commission, the 27-nation EU's regulatory arm, enables it to seek an injunction against Poland at the European Court of Justice. „Poland has everything to gain by building new infrastructure without sacrificing its most precious natural heritage,” EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said in a statement today in Brussels. The project threatens to destroy protected forests, according to the commission. The standoff with Poland is a test of the EU's ability to enforce European laws on the protection of habitats. Last week, Dimas said the project risks creating a „major catastrophe” and the Polish government had ignored a request to examine other routes. Via Baltica is an expressway to connect Helsinki with Warsaw by crossing Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The local authorities, backed by the Polish government, signed an agreement for the project to run through northeastern Poland's Rospuda Valley, which is protected by national and international environmental laws.

The valley has rare orchids, protected birds such as cranes and other animals including otters, beavers and lynx. Environmentalists oppose the road project, which the Polish government says is necessary to relieve traffic congestion. „Let's sit down and examine other alternatives,” Dimas said today. „We want to cooperate.” The commission's legal action targets the planned 17.1 kilometer Augustow bypass through the Rospuda valley as well as the 5.2 kilometer Wasilkow bypass in another protected area in the region called Puszcza Knyszynska. The commission began the proceedings for a lawsuit against Poland at the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice in December by issuing a warning known as a letter of formal notice. The final notice now being sent is called a „reasoned opinion.”

To hasten a possible court order to halt the project, the commission reduced the response time for Poland in the second notice to one week from the normal two months. „They don't need more time,” Dimas said. „They know the case.” In a separate environmental dispute last year, the commission succeeded in winning a court order suspending a law on the hunting of Sterling bird species in the Italian region of Liguria. Breaches of EU environmental law can lead to fines against member states. Dimas said he expects the dispute with Poland to be resolved before that possible stage. (Bloomberg)