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Ukraine: European Commission Demands Halt To Canal Project In Danube Delta

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> The European Commission joined a number of governments and environmental watchdogs today in condemning Ukraine's decision to open the first part of its Bystraya Canal in the Danube Delta for navigation. The commission says an independent environmental-impact study must be carried out before the project continues. However, officials say sanctions are not yet on the agenda. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund say the canal will gravely endanger what are Europe's second-largest wetlands.

Brussels, 25 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission said it "deeply regrets" Ukraine's decision to open for navigation parts of the Bystraya Canal between the River Danube and the Black Sea.

A commission statement notes that the canal cuts through internationally protected wetlands. The statement says outgoing President Romano Prodi and EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, together with the commissioner responsible for the environment, Margot Wallstrom, have repeatedly passed on their concerns to Kyiv.
"We insist that the works are stopped and [an environmental] impact-assessment study be carried out before any further development [of the project]."

Jean-Christophe Filori, a commission spokesman, said today the expressions of concern have had "limited effect." He said the EU wants Ukraine to immediately halt what he said would be a gigantic project. "We insist that the works are stopped and [an environmental] impact-assessment study be carried out before any further development [of the project]," he said.

Filori said an assessment study would have to be carried out by independent experts according to internationally recognized standards. Such a study would have to be commissioned by the Ukrainian government.

On 23 August, the U.S. State Department issued a statement expressing deep concern. That statement also highlighted the potential negative environmental impact of the canal project. It also called for an impact-assessment study, as well as a route that would minimize damage to the environment.

Neighboring Romania, which says the canal will affect water levels on its side of the Danube, has also protested.

Numerous global environmental organizations have condemned the project. Officials in Brussels say the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is one of Ukraine's most vocal critics. A statement on the WWF website says the project will threaten important bird habitats. The Danube Delta is said to be home to an estimated 280 bird species. The WWF statement says the organization has suggested alternatives to the Ukrainian government, but says Kyiv has chosen what it calls the "most ecologically destructive option."

Ukraine said in a letter sent to the European Commission in July that the Bystraya project simply restores earlier deep-water passages that were not contested by international organizations. It said water levels on the Romanian side will not suffer and said the canal does not violate international environmental commitments assumed by Ukraine.

EU officials said the letter did not satisfactorily address EU concerns. Filori reiterated today the environmental concerns. "The Danube Delta ecosystem is a very fragile one, first of all," he said. "It contains a lot of animal species, rare plants, etc. It is covered also by the Ramsar convention for the protection of wetlands, and several NGOs and associations [active in the field of] environment have already drawn the attention of the world to the dangers to the environment of this project, which -- once again -- is being carried out without proper environmental-impact assessment."

Filori stressed that the EU does not want to prejudge the results of the study. He said the EU is not considering sanctions, but will continue to raise the issue with Kyiv -- adding that he hopes "that we will be listened to by our Ukrainian friends."

An EU source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ukraine's continued intransigence would "certainly have an effect" on relations with the EU. He said it could at some later stage lead to the slowing down of joint projects.