Banning Smoky Coal and Its Effect On Air Quality

Burning of fossil fuels such as coal is a major factor in air pollution. The sale of bituminous (smoky) coal was banned in parts of Ireland in the early 1990's in an effort to address this issue. 'Winter smog' was a growing problem in urban areas at the time, due to the widespread use of bituminous coal, and this, in turn, had given rise to serious health effects in the population.

In the Dublin area the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal was prohibited. Smoke and sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels showed considerable improvement once the ban was introduced and the policy was gradually rolled out over several other large towns and cities. The ban on bituminous coal was introduced under the Air Pollution Act 1987 and a number of amendments to the 1998 Regulations allowed this ban to be extended to other areas.

The ban took effect in Dublin from 1990, Cork from 1995, Arklow, Drogheda, Dundalk, Limerick and Wexford from 1998, Celbridge, Galway, Leixlip, Naas and Waterford from 2000, Bray, Kilkenny, Sligo and Tralee from 2003.

On 1st August 2011, the ban was extended to the towns of Athlone, Arklow, Clonmel and Ennis. Seven new  towns were also included with effect from May 2013; Greystones, Letterkenny, Mullingar, Navan, Newbridge, Portlaoise and Wicklow Town. Furthermore, from June 2015 the town of Maynooth will also be included. For maps of smoky coal areas nationwide, click here.

The ban on the sale of smoky coal in the existing zones, which has been in place in larger towns for some time, will be extended countrywide from Autumn of 2018. Coal distributors will be allowed 12 months from then to sell off existing stocks before a total ban comes into effect in 2019.  It is estimated that in the region of 8,000 premature mortalities have been averted in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban back in 1990. Further health, environmental and economic benefits (estimated at €53m per year) will be realised, when the ban is extended nationwide.

Voluntary Agreement

A Voluntary Agreement between The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Solid Fuel Trade Group Ltd (SFTG) was first agreed in 2002. This sets a limit of sulphur content of bituminous coal to no more than 0.7% and the Regulations 2011 places this limit on a statutory footing. This measure will help to protect human health and the environment by reducing air pollution, particularly in the winter months.

In order to support its effective implementation, all coal bagging operators and fuel suppliers for the residential market must register with the EPA. They must also maintain a record of their product showing that it is compliant with the Regulations.

Fines are also in place for anybody that breaches these Regulations under the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011.

The effects

The ban on smoky coal has greatly reduced levels of Particulate Matter (PM10) in major towns and cities. Black smoke decreased significantly in Dublin after the ban in 1990, in Cork in 1995 and in Limerick 1998. Overall, a 70% reduction in the average smoke levels in winter in Dublin has been achieved since October 1990.

The ban resulted in significant falls in respiratory problems as well as premature deaths from the effects of burning smoky coal in the existing Low Smoke Zones. The original ban is acknowledged widely as a successful policy intervention and has been recognised as an example of best practice within the clean air community. Approximately 8,000 premature deaths have been prevented in Dublin since the introduction of the smoky coal ban in 1990 (EPA, 2019).

In early 2021, proposals to ban smoky fuels across Ireland will be proposed (Sunday Business Post, 2020)

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