The Irish Times view on smoky coal ban: State must not back down

Government plans for a State-wide ban should not be deflected by threats of litigation by producers

This Government failed to stop illegal turf harvesting on raised Midland bogs during recent years, so a negative response to a ban on this traditional fuel can be anticipated. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

This Government failed to stop illegal turf harvesting on raised Midland bogs during recent years, so a negative response to a ban on this traditional fuel can be anticipated. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Threats of litigation by coal producers over a proposed nationwide ban on smoky coal have caused the Government to hesitate on established policy.

It is now attempting to buy time and muddy the waters with a suggestion that a public consultation process should take place in relation to the burning of all fossil fuels: turf briquettes, peat and coal. In the meantime, 13 medium-sized towns may be included under the smoky coal ban before Christmas.

This Government failed to stop illegal turf harvesting on raised Midland bogs during recent years, so a negative response to a ban on this traditional fuel can be anticipated. The same holds true for the use of briquettes or other materials in stoves or fireplaces. A complete ban would become a guaranteed vote-loser at election time. And yet, the protection of public health requires careful consideration.

Burning smoky coal was banned in Dublin in 1990 in spite of intensive lobbying by coal merchants and industry representatives. That intervention caused air pollution levels to fall by 70 per cent in the city and, since then, it has been estimated that 8,000 fewer people have died from heart- and lung-related diseases. What was a contentious political decision at the time is now regarded in the same positive light as banning tobacco smoking from public places or charging for plastic bags.

Before the smoky coal ban, Dublin had been shrouded in smog on winter days and citizens choked on fine particulates, given off by open fires and stoves.

The success of the scheme, and its proven health benefits, have led to a similar ban being imposed in 25 large town and cities. It represented a slow and cautious political approach, concentrating on larger centres of population. Recent studies by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) have found, however, that geological aspects can raise winter air pollution in some small towns to dangerous levels. It proposes to establish 38 monitoring stations that will provide local, up-to-date information.

Poor air quality has been linked to the deaths of 1,500 Irish people every year. Those most vulnerable are children and the elderly. According to the EPA, the threat from solid fuel fires in small towns is only exceeded by pollution from cars in urban areas. All this points to the need for long-term planning and to modifying the various systems used to heat our homes.

There can, however, be no backing down from the challenge posed by smoky coal. Government plans for a State-wide ban should not be deflected by threats of litigation by producers on the grounds that it would be “anti-competitive”. When it comes to the issue that really matters, public health must be protected.

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