Clean air is a vital public health interest and it is inseparable from the challenge of climate change. In 1990, while Minister of State, Mary Harney introduced a ban on smoky coal use within the Dublin region. This decision had a very radical and beneficial impact on public health and the environment. It saved many lives and improved the quality of health in others, as well as the quality of our lived environment. It was a decision and not an announcement; substance as opposed to spin; and a concrete action as opposed to a promise never delivered. Thirty years later, it is incomprehensible that our past two Fine Gael-led Governments have failed to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal despite numerous promises from Ministers to do so.
Former Ministers, including Phil Hogan and Deputies Kelly and Naughten, promised to bring forward such a ban, but no action or decision followed.
A recent report on air quality published by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, revealed the degree to which air pollution in towns not covered by the ban exceeded World Health Organization air quality guidelines. For example, Enniscorthy continually has the highest observed concentrations of air pollutants of all monitoring stations in Ireland, with a 20% higher level of pollutants PM2.5 and PM10 than in Dublin or Cork. Professor John Sodeau of UCC is particularly critical of the Government's inaction on this issue and raised concerns that the public health and climate change consequences for the areas not covered by the ban on smoky coal were very severe. This air particulate pollution attacks every cell in the body and carries carcinogens, heavy metals and acids. Up to 1,500 lives are lost annually as a result of diseases linked with it. Based on promises made by the Government, some manufacturers invested millions in order to be in a position to produce smokeless coal, but they have been left high and dry.
Yesterday the Taoiseach announced a welcome U-turn on his position on fossil fuel exploration, albeit we learned that licence applications would be accepted for the Celtic Sea and the Irish Sea on an ongoing basis. He had previously poured scorn on and refused to back legislation aimed at doing the same thing. Given that we have never discovered oil, it was, perhaps, easier for him to make that announcement than to ban smoky coal as promised by three Ministers but never delivered on. The real point is that action speaks louder than words. Ireland is one of the worst performers in Europe in terms of air pollution and climate change. The State will miss its 2020 EU targets by a staggering amount. Why did three former Ministers promise to extend the smoky coal ban but then take no further action? Was there lobbying by vested interests and, if so, by whom and when? I ask the Minister to send the details to me if he does not have the information before him. Does he accept that there is an apartheid approach to clean air in this country, with people living in 20% of it being condemned to breathing in carcinogens, heavy metals and acids?