Thursday, 4 July 2019

Questions (3)

Timmy Dooley


3. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the number of premature deaths from air pollution estimated to occur following his announcement that a ban on smoky coal will not be extended nationwide for the 2019-2020 heating season; the information he has received regarding potential action against the State due to the deferral of a nationwide ban; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28667/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The European Environment Agency, EEA, has estimated that around 1,600 premature deaths were attributable to air pollution in Ireland. Will the Minister clarify the projected number of deaths likely to result from the decision to reject a nationwide ban on smoky coal for the 2019-2020 heating season? The Minister has noted that his hands are tied due to the threat of legal challenges from businesses. Individuals and communities might question whether the State is failing in its real obligations to protect the right to health of its citizens. Will the Minister please report on information that his Department has received concerning the legal action threatened against the State in respect of the decision to delay the ban?

The ban on smoky coal, as it is commonly known, was first introduced in Dublin in 1990, and subsequently extended to other major cities. Following a public consultation process, it was further extended in 2012, and now applies in 26 urban areas nationwide. The ban has proved effective and research indicates, for example, that the ban has resulted in more than 350 fewer annual deaths in Dublin alone.

Estimates of the total numbers of deaths attributable to air pollution in Ireland and 40 other European countries are released by the European Environment Agency. This assessment requires information on air pollution, demographic data, and the relationship between exposure to ambient pollutant concentrations and a health outcome. The latest report, published in 2018, gives data for 2015. It shows that although Ireland has one of the lowest levels of air pollution in Europe there were still an estimated 1,150 premature deaths in Ireland attributable to air pollution in 2015. That was out of an estimated 483,400 premature deaths across the EU as a whole. Figures for 2019 are not yet available, and would not in any event give the level of detail the Deputy seeks as they are based on pollution loads from all sources rather than just emissions from residential solid fuel burning.

Regarding the proposed national extension of the smoky coal ban, I am disappointed that a number of coal firms have indicated that they would challenge the proposal of two former Ministers to expand the smoky coal ban nationwide and also challenge the existing ban on the basis that the State should also have to ban the burning of other fossil fuels, including wood and peat products. Banning the use of smoky coal would have a positive impact on air quality, particularly in built up areas. Since I announced that I would not be extending the ban nationwide in time for the 2019-2020 heating season, I have been contacted by a number of manufacturers of low-smoke fuel who have expressed a wish to see the national extension of the ban implemented. I am working with the Attorney General to finalise a legally robust plan, which will improve air quality by reducing particulate matter in the air.

I am concerned at the sudden raising of this issue of a smoky coal ban not being possible due to the threat of legal challenge from businesses because other fossil fuels such as peat and wood would be excluded. Surely the Government faces the threat of legal action whenever it makes a change to regulations affecting businesses. The Government must have known for years that initial action on the worst smoky coal was necessary. The situation is farcical. No further information has been provided by the Government on these supposed challenges, when or how they will be overcome or how long it intends to consult with the Attorney General. It appears that the Minister has knowingly made a misguided political decision and these companies are benefitting to a great degree from that decision.

In 2013, the then Minister and former Deputy, Mr. Phil Hogan, confirmed that the current smoky coal ban would be extended. That was confirmed again by the former Minister, Deputy Kelly, in 2015 as well as by the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, in 2018. Companies should have been well aware that this was under way. Why has the situation suddenly arisen today that we are accepting these legal challenges? Why are we not recognising the position that the State has taken for some time now?

The challenge has arisen around this question of the equivalence regarding particulate matter derived from burning smoky coal or wood and peat products. That is the core issue. The nationwide extension of a ban on smoky coal, which I know was made in good faith by the former Ministers, envisaged that it would not apply to peat or wood products. This issue has to be examined carefully and that is why I am consulting with the Attorney General. I want to take action to deal with cases where there are risks to health. In taking such action, however, I have to ensure that I do not jeopardise existing measures which have shown themselves to be particularly effective in avoiding premature deaths. It is a question, therefore, of having to take the due and proper care to ensure that the action that I take is something that will be robust and will not jeopardise protections already in place.

Back in 2017, the State took part in the EU clean air dialogue where challenges facing clean air policy in Ireland were examined jointly by the European Commission and Department officials. To the best of my knowledge there was no mention of these issues then. The relevant conclusions recommended expanding the ban on smoky coal. The Minister might also clarify if the Department is now rejecting those Commission recommendations.

The Department is not rejecting anything. It recognises the merit of extending a ban on smoky coal. The issue that has been challenged is whether it is legally robust to have such protections in respect of one fuel product at a time when other fuel products that have a similar profile regarding polluting effects are excluded. That is the issue. We need to ensure that in taking action to protect health we do not inadvertently jeopardise protections already in place. I want to make sure we are on solid ground with any action I take. That is why it will take some time to find a resolution to this issue.