Controversial plans for a 4-lane motorway through EU-protected nature zones in the Czech Republic could be about to get the go-ahead.

For the past 20 years environmental groups have been challenging the D52 project – previously known as R52 – in the country’s South Moravian region, home to three protected nature zones.

The road is part of the international A5 corridor that connects the Austrian capital Vienna to the second largest city in the Czech Republic, Brno. But environmental activists are strongly opposed to the project as it would endanger three Natura 2000 sites (SCI Musovsky luh, SPA Stredni nadrz vodniho dila Nove Mlyny and SPA Palava), home of incredible biodiversity such as the Eurasian Otter.

Natura 2000 areas are designated under EU nature protection laws to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Nature-damaging activities are supposed to be restricted on these sites.

But activists fear the Czech Supreme Court could be just months away from giving the green light to plans from the country’s road management agency to construct a 4-lane motorway section from Pohorelice to Mikulov. A decision on the controversial road is expected in 2019.

They say the D52 project is an example of so-called ‘salami slicing’ which occurs when authorities get permits for the first and last section of a road before requesting permission for a controversial middle section, making it more difficult for courts not to issue the permit for the missing part.

Local authorities in the south west of Brno are already overburdened by noise and air pollution caused by existing traffic, mainly from the D1 (Prague-Brno) motorway. Earlier this year, the Czech Republic was almost sent to court for failing to address air pollution.

Authorities that plan to construct roads with four or more lanes (of at least 10 km) must have their plans scrutinised in an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – as set out in an EU law adopted by EU governments back in 1985. The aim of these exercises is to gauge how planned infrastructure projects across the bloc will affect the environment, give local authorities and the public the chance to give their views, and to come up with
possible alternatives to a given project.

While environmental impact assessments for the motorway were carried out between 2005 and 2006, the final report only contained two alternatives to the damaging D52 road, and not the required three. The third alternative had been cut from the assessment after the Director General of the roads management agency intervened.

Environmental activists in the Czech Republic are now calling for authorities to reconsider their preferred alternative route, routing the corridor onto the existing D2 road, meaning the three Natura 2000 zones would not be affected and there would be a smaller impact on air pollution, in line with EU environmental rules.

The European Commission has estimated that full implementation of EU environmental protections could save the EU economy €50 billion every year in health costs and direct costs to the environment. In 2016 it launched its Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) to beef up the implementation of environmental law across the EU.

This article is part of a special META series on the Implement for LIFE project.