Government delayed smoky coal ban despite EPA warning of health dangers

Minister announced halt on ban day after he was told of emmissions threat in rural areas

A ban on the fuel was first introduced in Dublin in 1990. Photograph: iStock

A ban on the fuel was first introduced in Dublin in 1990. Photograph: iStock

 

The Department of the Environment delayed a smoky coal ban despite being warned a day beforehand that emissions from the fuel regularly cause air quality levels to breach World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

On April 1st this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was established to provide independent advice and guidance to the government, sent the department a report detailing how air quality diverges between areas depending on whether a smoky coal ban is in place.

The report, which looked at the presence of particles called PM2.5, concluded that “we are above the WHO air quality guideline value for PM2.5 at many locations at which we monitor. The proposed extension of the ban on smoky coal will have a positive impact on levels of particulate matter particularly in rural towns and villages”.

However, one day later, Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton confirmed that he was stalling plans to introduce a smoky coal ban as planned this year, citing legal threats from the coal industry, which were first reported by The Irish Times.

Opposition figures sharply criticised the decision to delay the ban almost immediately after the EPA report was issued to the department. Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly, who first announced plans for the nationwide ban when he was minister for the environment in 2015, said the decision not to implement the ban was “beyond comprehension”.

“It’s very concerning that the day after the EPA confirmed that it was the right thing to do from an environmental and health point of view, that [Mr Bruton] rules it out subsequently.

“He’s ignoring the EPA. They’ve been very direct in their message to him, so why is he ignoring their advice?”

Fianna Fáil’s environment spokesman Timmy Dooley said the Government was “heel dragging” on implementing the ban. “He shouldn’t have needed the report,” he said. “It’s obviously the right thing to do, and the Government needs to get on and do it, because it’s impacting on health.”

Up to 1,500 premature deaths are linked to poor air quality in Ireland every year.

Earlier this year, several companies involved in the smoky coal trade indicated to the department that they would consider legal action if the ban went ahead, as planned, in September. Following this, Mr Bruton confirmed that the ban would not be implemented nationwide as planned this year, pending discussions with the Attorney General on “a legally robust plan which will improve air quality by reducing particulate matter in the air”.

Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland, said the air monitoring “shows the material impact of this policy change on air quality” and “clearly indicates the importance of this ban”.

“Recent research has shown that air pollution has a major health impact on people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses and also on people with heart disease, and that children can be particularly affected.”

According to the report, levels of PM2.5 in large towns such as Enniscorthy, which is not covered by a smoky coal ban, “can be upwards of double the concentrations observed at the monitoring site in Finglas, north Dublin and in Bray, Co Wicklow during this period”, both of which have bans on the sale of smoky coal. On average, the report finds that particulate levels are 20 per cent higher in towns without a ban when compared to Dublin and Cork.

A ban on the fuel was first introduced in Dublin in 1990, and other towns and cities followed suit in the ensuing years. However, roughly 20 per cent of the population still lives in areas not covered by a ban.

A spokeswoman for the department said that “the Minister recognises the very significant health and environmental benefits of extending the smoky coal ban nationwide. However, arising from the prospect of a legal challenge to the extension of the ban from a number of coal firms, it is necessary to ensure that the plan we put in place is legally robust”. The spokeswoman added that the Minister was “determined to address this matter”.