How the coal ban dealt with Dublin’s burning issue

The prohibition of ‘smoky’ coal in 1990 resulted in 350 fewer annual deaths in city

Mary Harney, who helped push through the ban on ‘smoky coal’ in Dublin in 1990. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Mary Harney, who helped push through the ban on ‘smoky coal’ in Dublin in 1990. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

a
 

In September 1990, following a series of winters during which Dublin city was engulfed in thick black smog, a ban on the sale, marketing, and distribution of bituminous or “smoky” coal was introduced in Dublin.

The results were dramatic with the city’s caustic winter air pollution disappearing almost immediately.

It has since been reckoned the prohibition resulted in 350 fewer annual deaths in the capital.

In monetary terms it has had an estimated benefit of more than €20 million.

Despite the clear causative link between household coal burning and smog, there was strong resistance to the ban.

Just one year previously Fianna Fáil environment minister Pádraig Flynn had ruled out a ban, claiming it would hurt widows and old-age pensioners.

However later in 1989 he got a new junior minister in Progressive Democrat Mary Harney, who was determined to see the ban through.

“I was living in town at the time so I could see the problem for myself, but there was huge political resistance.

“The coal distribution lobby had a major influence, more so than considerations of public health, quality of life or environmental protection,” she said.

Environmentalists ignored

Famously, during the earlier passage of the Air Pollution Bill through the Dáil, the only group Mr Flynn met was the Coal Information Service – the lobbying arm of the coal industry – which maintained coal was “part of Dublin’s heritage”.

Attempts by environmental groups to put their point of view got nowhere.

There was, Ms Harney says, an acceptance that smog was a major health problem in Dublin, but the plan to deal with it was to survey groups of houses and give grants to people to take out fireplaces, some of which had been put in a few years previously, also with the aid of grants.

“It was going to take 20 years to do the whole of Dublin and cost €500 million,” she said.

The industry balked at the method chosen for taking coal out of homes.

“We placed emphasis on industry by banning the sale, distribution and marketing of coal, rather than the burning of it,” she said.

However, while Ms Harney’s struggles with her senior colleague in the department were well known, she had the backing for the ban of the Dublin-based Taoiseach.

“In some political quarters there was the view that we were doing too much too soon, but I had the support of Charles Haughey. ”

She hopes the ban will now be extended nationally.

“It has probably saved 8,000 lives and was the beginning of the move towards developing environmental strategies.

“Hopefully the 25th anniversary will be marked by a prohibition nationally on smoky coal.”

Unnecessary deaths

Clean air campaigner Prof Luke Clancy returned fromBritain in 1979 to take up a position as consultant respiratory physician in St James’s Hospital Dublin and was met head on by the effects of the Dublin smog.

“The first couple of winters were bad, then came the winter of 1982 and the smog was markedly worse. Far more people died than we’d have expected.”

The rate of mortality associated with acute admissions to the hospital in winter was about 5 per cent; in 1982 it was 10 per cent.

“These were patients who had disease anyway, but ones we didn’t expect were going to die and many we thought were improving when they did die.”

Their deaths were invariably related to pulmonary or cardiac causes.

“They were associated with the terrible smog. You could even see it leaking into the wards and we knew they were breathing in smoke.

“Subsequently I found out that this had been happening in hospitals across Dublin, and there was excess death every year there was bad smog, and that directly lead to me becoming involved in air pollution campaigning.”

The effects of the ban were instant. “ I have never again experienced the mortality I experienced in James’s in the 1980s.”

a