Thirty years on, Ireland’s smoky coal ban remains an urgent issue

Some, including initial proponent Mary Harney, argue the ban should be nationwide

In Ireland, 380,000 people have asthma and 890,000 people will suffer from the condition at some stage of their lives. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

In Ireland, 380,000 people have asthma and 890,000 people will suffer from the condition at some stage of their lives. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

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Thirty years ago, Ireland was a different country environmentally.

The annual winter shrouding of Dublin with thick smog – grimly accepted by most as an inevitability – not only reduced natural light but led to the premature death of hundreds of people.

The State eventually admitted parts of the capital were exceeding EU smog limits, often for days in a row, and decided to introduce a programme to get rid of open fireplaces in the worst-affected areas.

But a young politician who had been appointed minister of state with responsibility for environmental protection boldly rejected this plan, which would take 20 years to complete at a cost of some €500 million.

Looking back, Mary Harney says the government approach was to survey “special control areas” with persistent smog – Ballyfermot was the first of them – and provide grants to remove fireplaces.

“I didn’t buy into that,” she says. “The obvious thing to do was to ban coal but not to criminalise householders.”

And so in September 1990, a prohibition on bituminous or “smoky” coal was introduced. With an emphasis on the industry rather than the consumer, it banned the sale, distribution and marketing of smoky coal, rather than the burning of it.

Within days of taking office, Harney, of the Progressive Democrats, became acutely aware of intense lobbying by the coal sector, which insisted the incremental approach supported by her senior minister Pádraig Flynn – a Fianna Fáil stalwart – was the way to go.

Flynn had previously rejected a ban, claiming it would hurt widows and old-age pensioners.

In November 1988 Flynn had outlined in the Dáil what was being done to tackle Dublin’s growing smog problem. Then Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter said he was not satisfied his declaration was “pressing the matter”.

“If necessary, bring in emergency legislation,” Shatter urged, adding he would get the support of TDs in doing so.

“Smog has been around a long time and I am the first person who tried to do something about it,” Flynn replied. “Just like I solved the problem of fish kills, I will solve this too.”

Two factors were critical to getting the ban across the line, Harney says.

Despite being within the ranks of the junior partner in the coalition government formed in 1989, she “roped in” the support of taoiseach Charlie Haughey. “I have always given him credit for that,” says Harney.

Secondly, a junior minister had, for the first time, been given “delegated powers”; in her case responsibility for environmental protection including the EPA. “That was great.”

Ban extended

The ban resulted in air pollution levels falling by 70 per cent and, since then, it has been estimated that 8,000 fewer people have died from heart and lung-related diseases. It proved immediately effective in reducing smoke and sulphur dioxide levels, and was gradually extended to other areas.

From September 1st, 2020, the ban will be extended to all cities and towns with a population of more than 10,000, meaning half the population of the State will live within the geographic scope of existing restrictions on bituminous coal and other specified fuel, such as low smoke zones.

Over the 30 years since the ban was introduced, the science of air pollution has become much more robust, with indications that the threat to human health had previously been grossly underestimated. Air pollution is now estimated to cost the Irish economy about €2 billion per year when burden on the health service and lost productivity are factored in.

The greatest health risks are associated with tiny solid particles that float in the air, known as particulate matter (PM), that are classified by size – ie being of less than 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter. PM10 (about 10th of the width of a human hair) can be seen as smoke or haze while PM2.5 (tiny “nanoparticles”) are invisible to the human eye.

PM10s are easily filtered out by the body’s natural defences such as nose hair, but PM2.5 nanoparticles are capable of penetrating deep into lung passageways and entering the bloodstream causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory impacts.

In children and adults, both short- and long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma.

Burning solid fuels – coal, peat and wood – in the home is by far the largest contributor to Irish emissions.

National estimates indicate smoky fuels are a key source of PM2.5 nanoparticles. They are responsible for about 60 per cent of all emissions, yet provide less than 5 per cent of national energy demand.

‘No-brainer’

Three decades on, Harney expresses incredulity that smoky coal is still being burned in many parts of Ireland, when a nationwide ban is “a no-brainer”.

She admits her strategy was high-risk and succeeded with luck.

Every coal merchant was up in arms, though the ban had its supporters – notably within the medical profession and especially Prof Luke Clancy of St James’s Hospital. Crucially, it worked from “a public health, science and timing point of view”, she believes.

Flynn declined to comment when asked by The Irish Times for his views on the ban. Undoubtedly, he was under sustained pressure from the coal lobby when he opposed it. However, it should be acknowledged he brought in the 1987 Air Pollution Act, the first comprehensive piece of legislation to deal with air quality in Ireland.

Furthermore, as EU commissioner in charge of public health, he did his bit in curbing the impacts of another notorious form of air pollution – tobacco smoke – when a directive to gradually phase out almost all tobacco advertising and sponsorship was adopted in 1998 under his stewardship.

Despite the successes of the ban, air pollution is still a major public health issue. “Improving air quality will benefit our health and the health of the planet,” says Dr Claire Noone of NUIG Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies . “By reducing biomass burning; encouraging cycling/walking, using public transport and transiting to electric vehicles, we can all make a difference.”

In Ireland, 380,000 people have asthma and 890,000 people will suffer from the condition at some stage of their lives, according to Emily Blennerhassett, interim chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland.

“Air pollution can severely impact their quality of life by triggering asthma symptoms and studies have shown it can cause asthma in young children,” she says.

She says former minister for environment Richard Bruton expressed legal concerns that would limit the Government’s ability to introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban. So the society worked with UCC Environmental Law Clinic to examine legal options open to the Government “to ensure plans for a nationwide smoky coal ban can be expanded to include all smoky fuels, in a bid to protect the health of the Irish people”.

She believes a broader ban to include peat and wet wood has the best chance of avoiding legal challenge by coal importers or of falling foul of EU law. Moreover, “a ban on the use of smoky fuels would greatly impact not just people living with respiratory conditions such as asthma, but would be extremely beneficial to the health of the general public”.

The Asthma Society of Ireland has issued a report which argues the current enforcement regime is hampered by issues of “leakage” with prohibited fuels being used in low smoke zones; migration of air pollution; abuse of fuel labelling and a below target regime of solid fuel inspections by local authorities. It suggests a nationwide smoky fuel ban is justified on health and climate grounds, while protecting “the right of Ireland’s residents to clean air”.

Over the coming weeks, Oireachtas members and the relevant State bodies will be briefed on its findings. There is unfinished business in ensuring the State’s citizens can breathe air that is not going to shorten their lives.