Gas leak at Mossmorran plant in Fife prompts safety probe

The UK government’s safety watchdog has launched an investigation into a prolonged leak of highly flammable gas at ExxonMobil’s petrochemical complex at Mossmorran in Fife.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) told The Ferret that ethane had leaked from a pipe for “a number of weeks”. It is investigating potential “failures of the management systems” and could decide to take legal enforcement action.

HSE said that after its intervention ExxonMobil had taken the “damaged pipework” out of service for repairs. The company said that the problem had been “fully rectified”.

Campaigners are shocked by the revelation, and are demanding tough action. Some fear a disaster and question whether the plant should be allowed to stay open.

The Ferret reported in July 2018 that ExxonMobil had been accused of “putting profit before safety” after documents released by HSE under freedom of information law revealed problems at the Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay complex near Dunfermline. The site also hosts a gas plant run by the oil company, Shell.

Over the last three years there has been escalating controversy about emergency gas flaring at Mossmorran involving hundreds of complaints from local residents. Flaring by ExxonMobil is under investigation by the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Shell and ExxonMobil accused of ‘putting profit before safety’ in Fife

ExxonMobil, a US multinational with revenues of $279 billion in 2018, runs the Fife Ethylene Plant employing 170 people at Mossmorran. It takes ethane from the North Sea and makes up to 830,000 tonnes of ethylene a year for plastics and other industries.

Ethane is described by the European Union’s chemicals agency as “an extremely flammable gas”. It has to be kept away from sparks and flames, and can form a potentially explosive mix in air.

The leak at ExxonMobil’s plant was discovered by HSE on 21 May 2019. “HSE inspectors conducting a routine inspection identified a leak from an ethane pipe,” an HSE spokesperson told The Ferret.

“Initial enquiries indicated this had been ongoing for a number of weeks and was being monitored by the operator. HSE has however launched a full investigation into the causes of the leak including any failures of the management systems used by the operator.”

The spokesperson added: “Following the intervention the line was isolated and the damaged pipework has now been bypassed and is no longer in use and will be repaired. The investigation is still ongoing.”

The Green MSP for Fife, Mark Ruskell, accused ExxonMobil of failing to invest in safety at Mossmorran. “The news that ethane has been leaking from the plant for weeks is shocking,” he said.

“My constituents are rapidly losing patience with the operators and will expect HSE to take the necessary enforcement action urgently.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland criticised the company for allowing the ethane leak to continue for weeks. “Ethane has a serious risk of both fire and explosion, the last things you want in the middle of a petrochemical plant,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“With their terrible history of unplanned flaring and now an apparently casual attitude to a very serious risk, important questions need to be asked about whether this plant should be allowed to continue to operate at all.”

The Mossmorran Action Group warned that there could be a disastrous accident at the petrochemical plant. “For years communities have worried about this ageing plant exploding,” said the group’s spokesperson, James Glen.

“Unplanned flaring, which only happens when there is an emergency shutdown in operations, is now a regular occurrence. For weeks, ExxonMobil have known about this leak, and the massive risk it constitutes, yet their PR has insisted that it’s perfectly safe to take school children up to their pond.”

Glen accused ExxonMobil of not being “straight with politicians and the public, prioritising marketing over safety.”

In September 2018 the Health and Safety Executive issued ExxonMobil two statutory improvement notices for breaching safety rules at Braefoot Bay near Mossmorran. The company had failed to demonstrate that it had “taken all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and to limit their consequences for human health and the environment,” HSE said.

The risk of ethylene leaking from “corroded areas” had not been reduced to “as low as is reasonably practical,” HSE added. The improvement notices were said to have been “complied with” in December 2018.

ExxonMobil stressed that leak had been dealt with. “This issue has now been fully rectified,” said a company spokesperson.

“The pipe in question is used to inject an additive we use to keep our furnaces running efficiently. We always work closely with the HSE, and ensure that all work is completed safely and to the highest engineering standard.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency said: “We have been informed of the Health and Safety Executive’s ongoing investigation into an ethane link at ExxonMobil’s Mossmorran facility and currently await the outcome of this work.”

This story was updated at 17.50 on 24 June 2019 to add a comment from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Photo thanks to Alex Bishop, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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