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Poland accuses Russia of exaggerated environmental claims in canal row

Poland has accused Russia of using exaggerated environmental concerns to try to stop the construction of a canal project in a row over access to the Baltic Sea.

Russian news outlets have spent at least the past five years claiming the Vistula Spit canal will damage an EU-protected nature park. The canal cuts across a Polish section of the Vistula Spit, giving the country direct access to the Baltic Sea. Previously, all marine access was through the Russia-controlled Pilawa strait in the exclave of Kaliningrad.

The Russian Human Rights Council claims the spit and the Vistula Lagoon, both of which are shared by Russia and Poland, constitute a “unique natural object”.

“The construction of the canal will not only require deforestation, but it will also change the water regime in the bay, which is likely to disturb the existing ecosystems,” the Russian state-owned Sputnik news agency said in April.

Other Russian news stories claimed that the canal would destroy local biodiversity and presented a military provocation.

The Polish government, which has framed the canal as an economic move, ordered an investigation that gathered evidence from 16 Russian publications.

“Russia used procedural issues and political pressure on the European Commission to destabilise the investment. It also used disinformation and propaganda to undermine or ridicule the legitimacy of the investment,” said the government spokesperson Stanisław Żaryn.

Regardless of Polish efforts to debunk claims of environmental damage, the European court of justice (ECJ) believes the canal would be damaging to local wildlife and the lagoon’s biodiversity. The project was deemed to be in breach of the habitats directive of the European Commission. Despite Europe’s concerns, the Polish government pushed the project through and started digging through the EU-protected park. The ECJ threatened a €100,000 fine for every day that the canal was under construction but no fine has actually been enforced since the court ruling.

The Polish MEP Robert Biedroń believes Russia’s attempts to block the project on environmental grounds have ulterior motives.

“I don’t think environmental protection has suddenly become very important to the Russian government,” he said. “The Russian claims are fantasies aimed at not completing the investment, which could strengthen Poland’s sovereignty and make it independent of the Russian side’s decisions regarding the passage of ships.”

Three ecological experts told the Guardian the canal would have a minimal impact on the local environment.

Prof Jan Marcin Węsławski at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Prof Lech Stempniewicz and Dr Michał Goc at the University of Gdańsk, said: “The canal will probably have little or no effect on the marine environment because it is a sluice gate closed on two sides, so the flow of water between the Gulf of Gdańsk and the Vistula Lagoon will be minimal.”

The total cost of the canal was estimated at €230m, one of the most expensive structural projects the Polish government has financed. A 2019 study by Prof Włodzimierz Rydzkowski, from the University of Gdańsk, showed it would take 650 years for a return on investment.

At full capacity, 12 medium-sized ships would cross daily, saving 50 nautical miles and avoiding Russian customs inspections. “There is no frequent or bulk cargo likely to be shipped to and from Elblag [Poland] via the canal,” said Rydzkowski.

The canal offers no significant military advantage in eastern Europe either, according to Prof Dariusz Bugajski of the Polish Naval Academy.

“In north-eastern Poland, we have a growing amount of military activity. To supply the garrisons to the north of Elblag, it would take a two-hour drive from Gdańsk. The canal would make this transport faster, but in case of a war, it is quite easy to cut off.”

Piotr Adamowicz, an opposition MP for the centrist Civic Platform party, claims the canal is a political project designed to boost the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

“Having the project finished after decades of discussion is a big political success. The canal itself does not have an actual economic or strategic impact, and I doubt the government will care about maintaining it once they’ve made their point,” he said.

“As for the Russian concerns about the environment, having drunk their tap water, I believe Kaliningrad has bigger ecological worries than a few fish.”

The Russian government did not respond to requests for comment.

Jan Wilkanowski, the leader of the Vistula area branch of the World Wildlife Fund, said the way the Polish government started the construction was “unacceptable”.

“They sealed and cleared the forest without telling anyone, leaving us no time to move wildlife from one side of the construction site to the other,” adding that animals trapped on the spit due to the construction of the canal may suffer from inbreeding over time.

Wilkanowski’s team has not been able to estimate how many species are now cut off from their usual habitat. “We have since been cooperating with the construction manager to protect the wildlife that is left,” he said.

“Ecological compensation” has been made by PiS: a 180-hectare artificial island reserve and beach that are being built in the lagoon from the displaced sand.

According to Wilkanowski, the fundamental problem will be from constant post-construction dredging that “will block sunlight and create a dead lagoon bed” and bring up harmful toxins from pesticides and sewage that was dumped before the 1990s.

“This is a fragile ecosystem. Swimming wasn’t even allowed until recently,” he said.

Hanna Mazur-Marzec, head of the department of marine biotechnology at the University of Gdańsk, said that even before the construction, the ecological situation in the lagoon was dire: “The canal is not the main problem of the lagoon and its ecosystem. The priority should be sewage control and filtering. I’ve taken sediments on the lagoon’s beaches that showed a degree of eutrophication that makes the water uninhabitable. My colleagues in Kaliningrad sometimes send reports of dead birds and animals during the blue-green algae bloom indicating an even worse situation on that side of the lagoon.”

Regardless of the environmental arguments, the canal is now open. The canal was inaugurated on 17 September, the anniversary of the date Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939.

“On this symbolic day, we will break Russia’s domination in the region,” said Marek Gróbarczyk, Poland’s deputy infrastructure minister.

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