The ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous fuel (or ‘smoky coal ban’ as it is commonly known) was first introduced in Dublin in 1990 in response to severe episodes of winter smog that resulted from the widespread use of smoky coal for residential heating. Air quality monitoring carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that the ban proved very effective in reducing particulate matter and sulphur dioxide levels in Dublin. The ban was subsequently extended to other urban areas and currently applies in twenty cities and towns.
On 31 August 2012, following a public consultation process, I gave effect to new consolidating solid fuel regulations, the Air Pollution Act (Marketing, Sale, Distribution and Burning of Specified Fuels) Regulations 2012. Some improved and updated provisions were introduced that will help to ensure that the Regulations remain fit for purpose in safeguarding air quality by limiting harmful emissions of air pollutants arising from the use of residential fuels. These are as follows:
- most existing smoky coal ban area boundaries were revised to take recent urban development into account;
- seven new towns are being added to the ban from May 2013 - Greystones, Letterkenny, Mullingar, Navan, Newbridge, Portlaoise and Wicklow Town; and
- a prohibition on the burning of bituminous fuel was provided for to complement the established ban on its marketing, sale and distribution.
In addition to the recent regulatory improvements, a closer alignment of solid fuel policy and legislation on an all-island basis would aid enforcement, protect air quality standards and allow the benefits derived from the ban to potentially be further extended. This is an issue that I am discussing further with my Northern Ireland counterpart through engagement under the North South Ministerial Council.
Products offered for sale in breach of the Regulations may often be of inferior quality, creating more pollution within a person’s home and in their community. The burning of solid fuel for residential heating makes a disproportionate contribution to air pollution, which generally occurs within communities where exposure, including to vulnerable groups, can be highest. In addition to gas and oil, there is a wide range of modern smokeless coals and other products available that are cleaner, easy to burn, and which generally provide more energy per bag and more consistent heat over a longer period with both consumer and environmental benefits.
The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources publication, Warmer Homes: Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland, recognises that there is a greater incidence of energy poverty in those households reliant on solid fuel. Accordingly, the Warmer Homes programme aims to alleviate energy poverty by funding social enterprises to upgrade insulation in low-income households with benefits for air quality, climate policy and the social economy, as well as cost savings to the consumer as a result of the more efficient use of fuel.