By Karol Witenberg
GDANSK (Reuters) - Poland is pressing ahead with plans to dig a waterway across a narrow strip of land that separates its main eastern coastline from the Baltic Sea despite concerns among activists and in the European Union that it could damage the environment.
The Vistula Spit is a heavily wooded sandbank 55 km (34 miles) long but less than 2 km wide which encloses a coastal lagoon. Poland shares both the lagoon and the spit with the neighboring Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Currently, the only access to the lagoon from the Baltic Sea is a channel at the Russian end of the spit. Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), deeply distrustful of Russia, says a canal is needed for both security and economic reasons.
Critics say it is a costly vanity project that could become another environment-related flashpoint between Warsaw and Brussels after increased logging in Poland's Bialowieza Forest led to a ruling by the EU's top court that it was illegal.
Defending the project, which is estimated to cost 900 million zlotys ($237 million), Poland's minister for maritime affairs, Marek Grobarczyk, said: "The first and basic reason for the construction ... is a threat from the east."
"This is the border of the EU, NATO, and above all of Poland, and it cannot really be controlled now because ships can only enter the Vistula Lagoon with Russia's approval," he said, adding that work would start in the second half of 2019.
Russia has deployed advanced nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, while Warsaw is lobbying hard to have more NATO troops on its soil, especially since Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
"OUR HEARTS BLEED"
However an EU official said on Friday Poland should refrain from building the canal before getting the green light from the European Commission.
As with the Bialowieza Forest, parts of the Vistula Spit are protected under the EU Natura 2000 program.
Environmentalists say it is difficult to predict the impact of the canal construction on various species living in the area, including cormorants and Baltic seals.
"There is no species that will benefit from the project," said Michal Goc, a biologist from Gdansk University.
Beaches on the Vistula Spit, which has a relatively modest tourist infrastructure, are mostly wild and empty compared to most of Poland's Baltic coast. But the handful of households on the Spit live mostly from tourism.
Jolanta Kwiatkowska from the mayor's office in Krynica Morska, which will be cut off after the land is split and remain on what will become a Polish-Russian island, says that the town and its residents are worried that the canal will scare off tourists as it is unclear what will happen to the beaches.
"The first thing is the destruction of nature which is already happening. Our hearts bleed when we see the forest being chopped," Kwiatkowska said in a video recording made available by a group of activists, "Vistula Spit Camp", referring to some preliminary logging conducted ahead of the large-scale work.
PiS says the canal will turn Elblag, a small port with a high unemployment rate, into one of Poland's biggest harbors, along with Gdansk and Szczecin, as more vessels will moor there.
"Elblag citizens support the project. What kind of port is it if it does not have access to the sea?," said Witold Wroblewski, mayor of Elblag.
(Additional reporting Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Gareth Jones)