The fossil fuel multinational, Ineos, has been accused of falsifying a record and flaring gas from a chemical plant at Grangemouth in breach of multiple pollution rules, The Ferret can reveal.
In July the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) served the company with a final warning letter alleging that a “deliberate deviation of procedures” had caused gas to be burnt off in a major incident in December 2022.
According to Sepa, the incident occurred because a valve was “falsely” recorded as shut when it had been left open for over two months. The flaring was “preventable” and “unacceptable”, Sepa said.
Sepa listed 11 alleged breaches of pollution regulations, made 13 recommendations for improvements, and threatened Ineos with prosecution if there were further breaches.
Environmental campaigners described Sepa’s accusations as “very serious” and called on Ineos to “get its house in order”. A local community group expressed “shock and dismay” at the revelations.
Ineos did not comment. At the time of the incident, it apologised to the local community for the “inconvenience” caused, and said staff worked hard to reduce the flaring.
Sepa released its seven-page warning letter to Ineos Chemicals at Grangemouth in response to a freedom of information request from The Ferret. Dated 4 July 2023, it described “significant elevated flaring” for over five hours on the night of 1 December 2022 from two stacks at a plant making ethylene for plastics.
After an investigation, Sepa concluded that the “root cause” of the incident was the failure of management to erect scaffolding to enable a valve to be accessed and closed. This failure led to “a deliberate deviation of procedures to falsely record” that the valve had been closed, the letter said.
According to Sepa, operators on the night assumed the valve had been closed “because the procedures had been signed off to that effect”. If the valve had been closed “the incident would have been prevented”, it said.
The letter added: “Sepa considers that the incident was preventable, and the failures identified are unacceptable as they resulted in significant flaring and disturbance to the public.”
Sepa said this was the sixth flaring incident at the site in 2022. It reinforced the need for Ineos to “secure compliance” with environmental regulations “as an urgent priority”, it stressed.
The flaring was made worse by a “malfunction” preventing a less noisy ground-flaring system from kicking in for six hours, Sepa added. The agency’s investigation also found that Ineos “had failed to notify a previous incident on 11 January 2022 where the ground flare had tripped”.
Sepa’s letter detailed a total of 11 alleged breaches of pollution rules in relation to the flaring incident. “Local communities are not being afforded the highest and most effective protection required under the law,” it concluded.
Sepa urged Ineos to conduct a series of reviews and checks to prevent a repetition of the incident, and report back before the end of August. “This letter constitutes a final warning,” Sepa cautioned.
“Any further/continued contraventions of the legislation are likely to result in enforcement action being taken against you by Sepa. Such enforcement action could include the submission of a report to the Procurator Fiscal recommending prosecution.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland demanded that Ineos “urgently get its house in order” to minimise pollution and keep people safe. “Ineos appears to have been caught out playing fast and loose with the rules on flaring,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.
“These are really serious allegations. If Sepa is right and the company is prepared to falsify a record about this noxious flaring incident, what else is it hiding?”
The Green MSP for Central Scotland, Gillian Mackay, called for “full transparency” from Ineos. “These are very serious accusations and raise important questions about who knew what, and when they knew it,” she told The Ferret.
“The flaring has been a consistent menace for the community, with impacts on local health and wellbeing as well as our environment. It is simply not good enough.”
We ‘expect better’ of Ineos
Grangemouth Community Council expressed “shock and dismay” at Sepa’s accusations. “The community of Grangemouth is reliant for its health, wellbeing and safety on the competence of major industries’ staff and their compliance at all levels with their agreed operating procedures,” said the council’s vice-convener, Walter Inglis.
“To learn that this has not been the case is deeply concerning. We expect better.”
Grangemouth independent councillor, Robert Spears, said: “I am concerned this is happening and would like to know what actions Sepa is taking.”
“The operator should conduct a review of the management system and arrangements for plant isolations and report the outcome to Sepa by 31st August 2023,” a spokesperson said.
“We will review the information received from ICGL before making any further regulatory decisions.”
Ineos has not responded to requests to comment. In a tweet issued on 2 December 2022 after the flaring incident it said it had been “managing a process upset” that had started at 9pm on 1 December.
“We have and will make every effort to reduce the levels and duration of the flaring association with this activity and apologise for inconvenience caused.”
In a second tweet the company reiterated its apology to the local community. “One of our manufacturing plants developed a fault that required the removal of a quantity of gas from the process and, as per industry standard, flare this via the high level flares,” it said.
“We are very much aware of the effect this has on our local community and our teams worked hard overnight to reduce the level and duration of the flaring, including making use of a ground flare.”
An online leaflet from Ineos stressed that various measures were taken to reduce flaring. “The ground flare has been very effective in contributing to the reduction of high level flaring,” it said.
“Over the last decade, flaring from the Grangemouth site has reduced by almost 60 per cent.”