Legal threats from coal firms have stopped the Government from introducing a nationwide ban on smoky coal which environmental activists and opposition parties are demanding.
Fine Gael has been accused of putting the interests of the coal industry above people’s health in bowing to pressure from the coal industry and not pressing ahead with a ban.
Serious concerns around the damage to people’s health have been raised around smoky coal which prompted the Environmental Officer in Wexford County Council to take pictures of players on a smog-covered football pitch last week when air quality in Enniscorthy exceeded safe levels.
A commitment to outlaw smoky coal was given as far back as 2017, however the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has been forced to stall after lobbying and threats from the industry.
A Department spokesperson confirmed that “a number” of coal firms have indicated that they would challenge the proposal of two former Ministers to expand the smoky coal ban.
“This is particularly disappointing, given the impact poor air quality can have on human health and the environment and the emphasis the government is putting on transitioning to a low carbon society.
“The basis of their challenge is that a nationwide smoky coal ban cannot be introduced without a nationwide ban on the burning of peat, turf and wet wood because these products produce similar levels of pollution,” the spokesperson added.
“The legal threat is not only to take down any new nationwide ban, but to remove the existing ban which is in currently in place in cities and many towns around the country.”
Fianna Fáil TD James Browne accused Minister Richard Bruton of reneging on a Government promise and said people will end up with serious respiratory conditions if they do not press ahead with the ban.
“The government cannot continue to ignore the facts; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attributes 1,180 premature deaths in Ireland every year to air pollution,” Mr Browne said.
“It causes strokes, heart disease and lung cancer, as well as respiratory conditions.
“Enniscorthy has been suffering from serious air quality issues for years, with local community groups, sports clubs and council officials raising the issue regularly.
“Despite consistently breaching EPA levels, the government continues to refuse to extend the smoky coal ban.”
He said the smoke pollution can be clearly seen in the air and clothes smell if left outside, adding: “If you can smell it you are breathing it in”.
A Department spokesperson said Mr Bruton is now working with the Attorney General to finalise a “legally robust plan” which will improve air quality by reducing air pollution, without jeopardizing the existing ban.
“The Minister intends to publish a Clean Air Strategy, which will set out a number of policies to improve air quality nationwide in the coming months.”
Smog became such a major health issue in Dublin in the early ’90s that it forced then Fianna Fáil junior minister Mary Harney to outlaw the burning of smoky coal in the capital.
The ban has since been extended to many cities and towns across the country.
It is estimated that around 8,000 lives have been saved in Dublin as a result of the ban.
The issue was also recently raised in the Dáil by Labour’s Joan Burton who said the Government is failing to take on the smoky coal merchants.
Responding, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said air quality is an important issue which the Government are “very much working” however, he added that “it is about much more than smoky coal”.
“Smoky coal is not an issue in this city, for example. The major cause for the air quality problem in Ireland is diesel cars, not smoky coal.
“People who know Enniscorthy well will know that it has much more to do with peat and briquettes than with smoky coal.
If we were to ban smoky coal and people changed to peat or briquettes, it would make the air quality worse,” he claimed.