This weekend, Poland’s president and prime minister visited the construction site for a government mega-project which began earlier this year, despite environmental concerns from green activists and the European Union.
The Vistula Spit canal is to connect the Vistula Lagoon – which runs along Poland’s northeastern coastline – with the Baltic sea via a 1,300 metre waterway. To do this, it will have to cut through a narrow strip of land, the Vistula Spit.
BESIX and NDI will build a shipping channel through the Vistula Spit peninsula, in Poland. The project includes breakwaters, quays, a channel, lock infrastructure with rotating bridges and sluice gates, buildings and roads, as well as an artificial island #construction pic.twitter.com/FCQUW0GHn2
— Colin Foreman (@MEEDColin) October 8, 2019
The government notes that the canal would cut 100 kilometres off the journey of ships heading to the Polish port of Elbląg, as they would not need to use the existing route around the spit. Just as importantly, it means they would avoid having to go through the Russian-controlled Strait of Baltiysk.
The new canal will “strengthen Polish sovereignty, independence and freedom” as Poles will no longer need to “ask the Russians” for permission to enter the Vistula Lagoon, said President Andrzej Duda this weekend, quoted by Rzeczpospolita.
He also emphasised the economic benefits, saying that such “great investments” are “the lifeblood of the economy. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, speaking along the president, added that the project would “protect” and “create” jobs while also offering a “great opportunity for development” in the region.
🎥Premier @MorawieckiM na #MierzejaWiślana:Mogę obiecać, że z prezydentem @AndrzejDuda o budowy we wszystkich zakątkach Polski będziemy dbali. Będziemy dbać o miejsca pracy. By Fundusz Inwestycji Publicznych wraz z innymi funduszami był wielkim planem dla silnej Polski w Europie. pic.twitter.com/1wwE6i1Vij
— Kancelaria Premiera (@PremierRP) May 30, 2020
The project has, however, raised a number of environmental concerns given that the area is a protected Natura 2000 site. Local authorities and green activists have raised worries about encroaching on natural habitats, destroying landscapes and endangering the local fishing and tourist industries.
Despite an official environmental impact assessment still not not yet having been published by Poland’s General Directorate for Environmental Protection (GDOŚ), a public body charged with overseeing environmental compliance of investments, in February already 25 hectares of trees, or about 0.5% of the spit’s forest area, were cut down to make way for the digging.
The Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection (RDOŚ) in Olsztyn had given the project the go-ahead, but the decision was then appealed by local authorities and green activists. GDOŚ has, though, postponed its assessment six times – the latest in February – saying that the case is “complicated”.
This used to be a forest. Building a shipping channel through the Vistula Spit in Poland threatens *three* protected areas – but the Polish government is going ahead anyway.
— Friends of the Earth (@foeeurope) February 27, 2019
In 2018, the European Commission had asked Poland to analyse the environmental and legal foundations of the project, and for construction to be suspended so long as doubt remains. Since then it has reportedly been considering taking legal action through the European Court of Justice (ECJ), reported RFM FM.
Moreover, the project’s initial cost of 880 million zloty (€200 million) has now been revised up to 2 billion zloty (€450 million). Poland is to finance construction with its state budget, but a nearby investment into the port of Elbląg in 2021-2027 is to be financed by the EU to the tune of 160 million zloty (€36 million).
“The billions of zloty which the government wants to sink into the Vistula spit, and to cement riverbeds under the pretext of creating river ways, should be instead devoted to fighting the drought, restoring natural retention, feeding groundwaters, river restoration as well as protecting wetlands and peat bogs,” says Radosław Gawlik, head of EKO-UNIA ecological association, quoted by Greenpeace.
During their weekend visit, the prime minister and president were met by protesters holding up a banners saying “Marnotrawstwo” (Waste) and “Szpitale Nie Kanał” (Hospitals, not the canal). The protesters had reportedly planned to hand the politicians a petition signed by 16,000 people calling for the canal construction to be stopped, but did manage to do so, reports TVN24.
Russia has also taken action in response to the project. In 2018, Moscow appealed to the EU to launch an inquiry into the possible consequences of the new canal.
At the time, Poland’s Ministry of Maritime Economy and Transport on Inland Waterways (MGMiŻŚ) responded that the appeal was baseless, as Russia had not signed the required Espoo Convention on environmental impacts of construction, reported wPolityce.pl.
“Ecology has never been a priority” for Russia, said Marek Gróbarczyk, the head of the ministry, who accused Russia of seeking an inquiry simply to block the project.
Meanwhile, the main opposition presidential candidate, Rafał Trzaskowski, has called for the government’s “three controversial investments” – referring to the canal, an international airport and railway interchange (Solidarity Central Transport Hub) ,and a body tasked with promoting Poland abroad (Polish National Foundation) – to be suspended.
The funds should instead be redirected towards health care and supporting those harmed by the coronavirus crisis, says Trzaskowski, quoted by Rzeczpospolita.
In response, an MEP from the ruling party, Patryk Jaki, accused Trzaskowski of “acting in the Russian interest” by seeking to “block key investments”.
Main image credits: Adam Guz/KPRM/Flickr