WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland has repeatedly breached a European Union court ruling banning logging in the Bialowieza forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site, environmentalists said on Tuesday.
Bialowieza, which straddles the border with Belarus, is one of Europe's last primeval forests and home to its largest herd of European bison as well as unique birds and insects.
Last year the Polish government tripled the quota of wood that can be harvested in part of the forest - claiming more trees must be cut to stop a beetle outbreak - angering environmentalists and much of the public.
In July the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered Poland to immediately stop logging in the forest and, after seeing no response, warned last week that Warsaw would be fined 100,000 euros ($119,000) a day if it fails to prove within 15 days that logging has stopped.
Environmentalists from Greenpeace and Wild Poland said in a joint report published on Tuesday that since the EU court ruling at the end of July, until the start of November, logging had continued in habitats of protected species and included 100-year old trees, which was contrary to the court ruling.
The clash over the ancient forest is one of many between Poland's nationalist-minded Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party and the European Union, which is also concerned with Warsaw undermining the independence of Polish courts and the media.
Warsaw has said it obeyed EU laws and the ECJ ruling as its actions in Bialowieza forest were only designed to guarantee the safety of visitors and drivers.
Activists, however, argued in the report that trees standing 120 meters away from roads were cut too, which dashed the driver safety argument, they said.
"The safety reasons is a magic term which came up when the beetle argument was no longer sufficient. The report shows to what extent the safety issues were abused," Katarzyna Jagiello from Greenpeace told a news conference to present the report.
Poland's environment ministry spokesman was not immediately available to comment. Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, who approved tripling the logging quota, told a conference last week that Poland had observed the EU court ruling and so would not have to pay the fines. Greenpeace and Wild Poland, however, said they expect Warsaw will be forced to pay the fines.
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(Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Susan Fenton)