Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I thank the Labour Party for introducing this motion. It is an important motion on clean air. I wish to focus particularly on the issue of smoky coal. Smoky coal is a significant contributor to air pollution. The EPA estimates that 1,500 premature deaths are caused each year by air pollution. The HSE has, in response to a parliamentary question I tabled, estimated that the economic cost to the State of air pollution is €2 billion per year. That is before getting into the health and moral costs, which are hurting people.
The smoky coal ban was originally introduced in 1990 and was gradually expanded to cover 80% of the population. The Minister now proposes extending it to an additional 13 towns, bringing the percentage up to 84% or 85% of the population, yet he is afraid to extend it nationally to cover 100% of the population because it would interfere with the market. Surely in any assessment of market interference, a proportion of 80% or 85% would suffice, yet since 1990 not one single legal challenge has been brought against the smoky coal ban. Why is the Minister bowing to the lobbyists from the coal industry outside the Republic? Why is he so afraid of them? If Governments were to act in the face of legal threats from private industry, none would bring in any regulation or rule. The primary purpose of the State is to protect its people from dangers. What is the rationale for the expansion to towns of over 10,000 people? Why not 10,100, 10,200, or 8,763? Why the round figure of 10,000? Where does that come from? Longford, with 10,008, is included, but Gorey, with 9,822, is not. Shannon, with 9,729, is not included. What is the difference? The populations are based on census figures from 2016 but many of the towns are growing rapidly and their populations have certainly exceeded 10,000 by now.
New Ross suffers very seriously from air pollution. Like Enniscorthy, it is situated in a valley. Therefore, when there is smoke in the air, it is very hard for it to dissipate. People have to breathe it in. The Asthma Society of Ireland has called for a nationwide ban. The EPA and our top scientists in the field of air pollution and air quality call for a nationwide ban. Smoky coal causes an increase in the numbers of hospital admissions, heart attacks and strokes. It causes low birth weight and diminished lung capacity in babies. It causes glaucoma. Now we have an extension of the health divide in this country.
I talked to a number of people who remember Dublin before the smoky coal ban was introduced. There was a high level of pollutants in the air then. The pollution could be seen and felt. It can be seen and felt in other towns now. The science tells us that only 10% of the total amount of air pollutants can be seen and felt. Another 90% cannot be seen but it is breathed in. It goes into one's lungs.
A smoky coal ban needs to be introduced nationally. Everybody deserves the same protection. I am not going to accept the effort, suddenly and at the last minute, to
distract by introducing the issues of turf and wood. Turf and wood amount to a total of less than 5% of the entire solid fuel burned in this country. There is a ready and available replacement for smoky coal. There is a policy that is implementable and practicable. It should be implemented. There should be no more distractions by way of introducing other issues. The Government should start taking care and putting people's health above the coal industry outside this country. The coal industry in the Republic actually wants a smoky coal ban introduced.