Ineos damned as “very poor” for pollution at Grangemouth

A plant run by the fossil fuel multinational, Ineos, at Grangemouth has been condemned as “very poor” for pollution by the Scottish Government’s environment watchdog.

The Ferret can reveal that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has given the company’s Kinneil terminal on the Firth of Forth its lowest compliance rating for 2019. 

The terminal processes half a million barrels of crude oil a day piped in from 80 North Sea fields. It often burns off gas in flares, causing noise and climate pollution.

In the last two years Ineos has reported 21 flaring incidents at the plant, in which hundreds of tonnes of gas have been burnt. Sepa has rated the plant as “poor” or “very poor” every year since 2014.

Community representatives described the plant’s performance as “extremely disappointing” and demanded “urgent steps” to make it compliant. Campaigners accused Ineos of not being “in any hurry” to curb the flaring.

Sepa usually assesses the environmental compliance of thousands of Scotland’s industrial sites every year. But publication of its assessments for 2019 has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the cyber attack on Sepa’s computers on Christmas Eve 2020.

Covid-19 also caused Sepa to drop its compliance assessment scheme for 2020. It has now promised to produce a “summary report” for the year, as well as a “compliance report” for 2021.

The Ferret has learnt that Sepa has given the Ineos plant at Kinneil a draft assessment of “very poor” for 2019. This means that there has been “significant non-compliance” and “urgent improvement is required”.

Neither Ineos or Sepa would confirm the reasons for the latest assessment. But poor ratings for the previous five years were because environmental rules on flaring and effluent had been breached.

In 2018 Sepa said the terminal had been “consistently non-compliant since 2014”. It was assessed as very poor “primarily due to flaring and the unavailability of ground flares in breach of the permit, as well as breaches of the effluent consent.”

Ground flaring is regarded as less noisy and polluting than “elevated” flaring from stacks, which can sound as loud as a jet engine. In September 2018 Sepa issued a final warning letter threatening legal action against Ineos, but this was resisted by the company.

Ineos bought the terminal from the oil giant BP for £186 million ($250m) in October 2017, along with the huge linked North Sea Forties Pipeline System (FPS). Ineos complained that Sepa’s noise limits were imposed “without any consultation” and claimed it needed “appropriate time” to modify the plant’s operations.

Ineos appealed to the Scottish Government, which ruled in the company’s favour in March 2019, relaxing Sepa’s limits. According to the government, though, the company was still required to “make progress in addressing the flaring noise issue as part of an improvement programme”.

Information from Sepa and Ineos analysed by The Ferret shows there have been 21 flaring incidents reported at the Kinneil terminal between June 2019 and April 2021. The most recent occurred on 16 April 2021 and lasted for half a week.

“As we manage a planned change in the flow of oil and gas from offshore installations connected to our pipeline system, there will be periods of controlled elevated flaring at the Ineos FPS Kinneil terminal,” the company said at the time.

“We will make every effort to minimise the duration and level of the flaring. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause our local neighbours and thank you for your patience.”

Earlier flaring incidents were blamed on “short term operational issues” and “essential maintenance”. According to Ineos, elevated flaring from stacks is a “critical safety system” during planned start-ups and shutdown of sections of the plant.

Flaring incidents reported at Ineos Kinneil terminal

16/04/21flaring over three days to “manage a planned change in the flow of oil and gas”
02/03/21flaring over a week during plant re-start
24/02/21“unplanned flaring” over two days
03/02/21flaring due to “essential maintenance”
20/01/21flaring over two days due to “short-term operational issues”
17/12/20flaring over 48 hours during plant start-up
07/09/20flaring over 48 hours which “may result in noise disturbance”
01/09/20flaring over five days due to “unplanned changes in gas throughput”
30/08/20flaring during start-up
27/08/20flaring during shutdown
16/08/20flaring over 36 hours
15/08/20flaring up to 50 tonnes an hour over 36 hours
03/08/20flaring over 20 hours due to “compressor changeovers”
31/07/20flaring over 20 hours due to “compressor changeovers”
14/07/20flaring after maintenance outage
18/10/19flaring for several days
25/09/19flaring over 24 hours during maintenance
11/07/19flaring over two days following plant outage
04/07/19flaring trials over nine hours
25/06/19flaring over 48 hours
14/06/19flaring over 48 hours due to “short-term operational issue”
Sources: Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Ineos FPS

There was also a 45-minute fire at the Kinneil terminal on 16 January 2021 which resulted in “dark smoke”. More than 20 additional flaring incidents have been reported from other Ineos plants at the Grangemouth petrochemical complex since June 2019.

Grangemouth Community Council, which includes the village of Skinflats, was worried about Ineos’s record on flaring. “Any breach of statutory limits in relation to environmental protection is concerning, recurring breaches even more so,” said the council’s vice convener, Walter Inglis.

“As a community we have to put our trust in the competence of the operators of these regulated sites and rely on the regulatory bodies to robustly enforce the agreed standards.

“So to hear that the regulators have rated the operator’s performance as very poor is extremely disappointing and we trust that urgent steps will be taken to bring the site back into compliance.”

To hear that the regulators have rated the operator’s performance as very poor is extremely disappointing.

Walter Inglis, Grangemouth Community Council

Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that the local community was suffering because of delays in fixing the problem. “There is a long history of flaring and poor compliance at the Kinneil site,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“These problems have been an issue for at least seven years and appear to be continuing to this day. Ineos don’t seem to have been in any hurry to sort things out when they took over the site, to the ongoing cost of the local community.”

Andy Gheorghiu, an international campaigner against Ineos, accused the company of  undermining Scotland’s targets to cut climate pollution. “Scotland must wake up to this threat,” he said.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency stressed that environmental compliance was “non-negotiable”. In 2018 more than 90 per cent of 5,123 regulated sites were compliant, it pointed out.

Sepa had a clear strategy to recover from a “complex and sophisticated” cyber attack. “Compliance assessment results for 2019 have not yet been published and we will make these available in due course,” said the agency’s spokesperson.

Then Sepa planned to produce “a summary report for 2020 reflecting our regulatory approach across the pandemic”.  There was also an “intention to produce a 2021 compliance report.”

A spokesperson for Ineos said: “We will await formal confirmation from Sepa of our 2019 compliance assessment score prior to making any comment.”

According to the BBC in February 2020, the company said “it had been making significant investments in the site and was fully committed to delivering a record of responsible environmental performance.”

Trump Turnberry rated as ‘very poor’

The Ferret also understands that Sepa has criticised the golf resort at Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast owned by the former US president, Donald Trump. Like the Kinneil terminal, it has been given a draft compliance assessment for 2019 of “very poor”.

Sepa declined to say why, and Trump Turnberry did not respond to requests to comment. In 2018 the resort was rated as “poor” because it breached environmental limits on the amount of water it could take to irrigate the golf course.

According to Sepa, the “daily abstraction limit was exceeded by more than 20 per cent on 26 days in 2018.” It said that Trump Turnberry was taking steps to address a “lack of resilience” in its water abstraction and irrigation systems, including new boreholes and storage tanks.

The Ferret reported on 27 April 2021 that the Trident nuclear base at Faslane on the Clyde had also been assessed as “poor” by Sepa for 2019. This was because the Gareloch had been polluted with toxic chlorine compounds.

Cover image thanks to iStock/Leonid Ikan.

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