The oil giant, ExxonMobil, could face prosecution after emergency flaring from its Mossmorran plant in Fife was branded “unacceptable” by the Scottish Government’s environment watchdog.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has so far received a record number of 650 complaints from local residents about noise and pollution from the flaring, which began five days ago on Easter Sunday. According to ExxonMobil, it was caused by a “process upset”.
Sepa has now launched a formal regulatory investigation, which will include gathering evidence from the public on the disruption caused. The Ferret understands that this could result in a report to the procurator fiscal.
The move has been welcomed by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who said that the noise and light pollution faced by the local community were “very significant”. She urged ExxonMobil to reduce the impacts of flaring.
Following previous bouts of unplanned flaring, Sepa served ExxonMobil with a “final warning letter” in April 2018. The flaring was “preventable and unacceptable”, Sepa said.
There were four unplanned flaring incidents at Mossmorran over 25 days in June and October 2017 and March and May 2018. The petrochemical complex also includes a plant run by Shell, but according to Sepa the company is not involved in the current incident.
In July 2018 The Ferret reported concerns that both companies were “putting profit before safety” after the release of official inspection reports revealed problems. Critics are concerned that not enough is being invested in ageing facilities – but this is denied by the oil companies.
Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, stressed the non-compliance with environmental rules was non-negotiable. “In addition to working hard to ensure ExxonMobil bring halt to the flaring as quickly as possible, we have also launched this investigation into the incident,” he said.
“The unprecedented number of complaints we have received is a clear message and it’s one that we have heard powerfully and clearly. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to help us understand the impacts of this flaring.”
He added: “The Mossmorran complex is a major industrial facility, where this type of flaring is a legitimate safety mechanism, but it’s been happening too often, and the current level and extent of the flaring from ExxonMobil is unacceptable.”
Sepa has been monitoring the pollution and noise from the flaring in the last few days, and is due to publish its data. “Air quality monitoring carried out on Monday 22 April showed no cause for concern,” the agency said.
“With ExxonMobil advising that flaring is likely to continue over the coming days, Sepa has reinforced to the site operators the importance of restarting the plant as quickly as possible with minimal amount of elevated flaring.”
Public concerns over flaring at Mossmorran were raised with Sturgeon at First Minister’s questions in the Scottish Parliament. “I am well aware and understand the concerns raised by the local community,” she said.
“Sepa’s air quality monitoring does continue to show that there isn’t a cause of concern. That said, however, I do appreciate that noise and light pollution is a significant – a very significant – issue for local residents.”
Sturgeon pointed out that Sepa had a range of enforcement powers, which it exercised independently of government. “I am very clear, however, that the company must take steps to minimise the frequency and adverse impacts of flaring on the local community.”
The issue was raised at Holyrood by the SNP MSP for Cowdenbeath, Annabelle Ewing. “I welcome the understanding the First Minister showed regarding my constituents’ concerns and her strong words about the need for the company to take steps,” she said.
“Sepa’s announcement of formal regulatory investigations is also welcome but, this time, if they establish that licence breaches have taken place then, to keep faith with my constituents, they must use their enforcement powers to the fullest.”
She added: “For my constituents, the key issue today is for this ghastly and hugely disruptive unplanned flaring incident to be brought to an end as soon as is practically possible.”
ExxonMobil promised to work “constructively” with Sepa. “We are already undertaking our own investigation focusing on root cause, corrective action and evaluation of ways to continuously improve our response following a process upset,” said Jacob McAlister, manager of the company’s Fife Ethylene Plant.
“Flaring is an important and permitted safety mechanism. There is no cause for concern in relation to air pollution and associated heath, as confirmed by Sepa’s own monitoring. The flare discharge is essentially water and carbon dioxide from the combustion of process gas and steam.”
According to McAlister, the company was about to provide Sepa with a report on using “best available techniques” to minimise unplanned flaring. “Incidents of unplanned elevated flaring at the plant are very rare, representing just two per cent of our entire operational time in the past ten years and with no increase in either frequency or volume,” he added.
“But when elevated flaring occurs, we absolutely understand its impact on communities. As such, we will continue to strive to minimise impact by reducing unplanned events and duration. Our team is working day and night to safely bring the plant back to normal operations and minimise both flaring and timescales.”
The Green MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell MSP, called on the Scottish Government to intervene. “It’s not good enough for Sepa to just respond with a new investigation,” he said.
“There have been multiple investigations and ExxonMobil has already been given a final warning. In my book, when a final warning is breached, fines or other sanctions should follow. The government must now take firm action against those responsible.”
He added: “We also need to go beyond the technical investigation and look at the real social impacts these flaring incidents have on people’s health and wellbeing. It’s time for an independent social impact study into the plant, and the sleeplessness, anxiety and health issues that are reported by the local community each time it flares.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland welcomed Sepa’s investigation. “The last few years have been a nightmare for people living anywhere near Mossmorran with unpredictable flaring often lasting for days on end,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“The situation has reached intolerable levels and the company need to be clear that their current state of terrible performance cannot continue.”
The local Mossmorran Action Group described the current flaring as “unprecedented” in its intensity and geographical reach. “Residents as far away as Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy have reported being affected by vibrations, chemical smells and noise from the plant,” said the group’s chairman, James Glen.
“Many in communities closer to Mossmorran had their holiday ruined, the roar and light of the flaring preventing sleep and frightening children while the black smoke and reeking air made people fearful to go outdoors and exacerbated health conditions like asthma.”
Glen claimed that social media had been “deluged” with calls for the plant to be shut down and for direct action. He attacked responses from the company, the politicians and Sepa as inadequate.
“Such responses fail to acknowledge the harm that is undoubtedly being done – to people’s health and well-being and the environment – let alone do anything to stop it. Mossmorran Action Group now has 261 individual reports of health and social impacts on its online map, its facebook group numbers over 1,500 and it has called a public meeting.”
He accused the authorities of being “in denial” about the problems. “They pretend each emergency flaring is a one-off, but it is now a regular and worsening occurrence as the plant passes its shelf life. In the meantime residents live in fear, exposed to the cumulative impact of the plant’s emissions, with permanent damage to their health and quality of life.”
Image thanks to Darren Watt. This story was updated at 15.30 on 25 April 2019 to include comments from Nicola Sturgeon, Annabelle Ewing and Friends of the Earth Scotland, as well as a video clip from First Minister’s questions.