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For Polish rivers and streams, May started off as a catastrophe. Although the long-awaited rain fell, torrents of pollution also poured into the rivers at the same time. At the beginning of the month, only in Małopolska stinking wastewater in an uncontrolled way flood to Rudawa, Serafa and Drwinkka in Krakow.

Over the May weekend, fishermen warned about sewage discharges into the Dunajec, Biała Tarnowska and Słopniczanka, and published photos of dead trout in Mszanka, Raba's tributary. A few days later there was a serious breakdown of the sewage treatment plant in the Kamienica municipality. All sewage landed straight into the river for several days. Polish Waters, the national authority overseeing Polish rivers, report that even though the plant that was upgraded last year, it was still functioning poorly. The authority said it would not issue a water permit. The accident will be examined by the prosecutor's office in Limanowa at the Provincial Inspectorate's request.

Ścieki spływające do rzek i niski stan wody zagrażają rybomŚcieki spływające do rzek i niski stan wody zagrażają rybom Przyjaciele Doliny Dunajca/FB

Sewage discharges under the cover of darkness

As fisherman point out, in the case of sewage discharges, the scenario is very often repeated: it occurs under cover of darkness or on weekends when the services are not working. The fishermen reveal illegal practices and alert public opinion about them. Now Polish Waters themselves have issue an appeal. "In these types of cases, it is important to react as soon as possible. So, if we witness water pollution and see that someone tosses garbage or discharges, let's react! It's best to call the emergency number 112”.

But interventions alone may not be enough, and certainly - as fishermen and environmentalists point out - to save Polish rivers. In June last year, the Supreme Audit Office issued a critical report, in which it highlighted that, especially in tourist destinations in the south of the country (in Małopolska it investigated Bukowina Tatrzańska, Biały Dunajec, Czarny Dunajec, Zakopane and Szczawnica), the water and sewage infrastructure is overloaded. In many places it found there was no effective supervision over wastewater management.

Threat of EU penalties

Almost a year later, the European Commission came to a similar conclusion, but on a broader basis for all of Poland. It called on Poland (along with Bulgaria, France and the Czech Republic) to ensure proper collection and treatment of municipal wastewater, in accordance with the requirements of the EU Directive of 1991.

The EC calculated that in Poland almost 1,200 cities lack a municipal sewage collection system.  “In 426 cities, Poland has not been ensured a more stringent treatment of municipal waste water introduced into collection systems and discharged to sensitive areas," the European Commission wrote in a statement on May 14.

EU commissioners gave four EU countries four months to act. "The Commission may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union," says the paper issued by the Commission. The EC made similar claims against Poland in 2018. In July, Polish Waters began preparations for the next update of the "National Programme for Municipal Wastewater Treatment". After consultation with local governments, the draft of this document was to be an object of the further work in April. But this did not happen.

Years of neglect

Before the EC once again called on Poland to improve the river situation, activists from the Save the Rivers Coalition appealed to the government. In a petition, they demand tougher penalties for polluters, effective legal regulations and support for municipalities in updating treatment plants. The authors of the appeal expect immediate and effective responses every time the river is threatened by an ecological disaster, not only in the event of major accidents, as at Warsaw's Czajka.

Krakow MP Daria Gosek-Popiołek, representing the Left, called on NIK to investigate sewage treatment plants.

“What happened in the Małopolska rivers are not one-off cases, but a systemic problem. This is the result of years of neglect and poor water and sewage management,” says Daria Gosek-Popiołek. “The EC's call will be ignored by the Polish government, but NIK and CIEP must look at what went wrong because in many cases the modernisation of sewage treatment plants was associated with spending EU funds. In addition, during drought, we must not allow sewage to flow in rivers instead of water.”

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