The petrochemical giant, Ineos, is bidding to block a crackdown by the Scottish Government’s environment watchdog on pollution from gas flaring near Grangemouth.
The Ferret can reveal that the £45 billion fossil fuel company has appealed against new controls imposed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) on the Kinneil oil and gas terminal on the Firth of Forth.
After years of complaints, investigations and breaches, Sepa wants to limit noise and air pollution from the burning of waste gases at the terminal. But the company insists that the planned controls will prevent “normal operating activities”.
Environmental campaigners accuse Ineos of “trying to get away with doing as little as possible”. Local residents worried about noise, smells and air quality have expressed concern.
Ineos announced that it had bought the Kinneil terminal from the oil multinational BP for $250m (£186m) on 31 October 2017, along with the huge North Sea Forties pipeline system. But the terminal’s previous track record on flaring under BP was problematic.
Sepa formally rated Kinneil’s pollution performance as “poor” for three years running in 2014, 2015 and 2016. This was because of multiple breaches of the plant’s operating permit on flaring.
On 3 July 2017 Sepa inspectors found “very poor control of noise during plant restart resulted in significant noise levels i.e. at least 20 decibels above background at night.”
This was due to “poor control” of the steam used to reduce smoke from flaring, Sepa’s report said. “Lack of procedural control over steam rate to flare is a significant failing given the pollution risk from elevated flaring.”
It is understood that Sepa has investigated 15 local complaints about noise and pollution from Kinneil in the last three years. Four were in 2017, four in 2016 and seven in 2015.
On 16 October 2017 – just before Ineos bought the terminal from BP – Sepa tightened its legal pollution permit. It introduced new conditions requiring that noise from flaring did not exceed 54 decibels between 11pm and 7am, and demanded more notifications and measurements.
Sepa also insisted “all appropriate preventative measures are taken against noise and vibration emissions through application of best available techniques and ensure that no significant pollution is caused.”
But Ineos then lodged an appeal with Scottish Ministers objecting to the crackdown. According to one document on the website of the Scottish Government Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA), the company maintained that noise complaints were infrequent and it did not “have any evidence that significant pollution is being caused.”
But the detailed grounds of the company’s appeal, along with related documents, have been kept secret by the company and ministers “due to sensitive information”. The appeal is due to be heard by the Scottish Government planning reporter, Martin Seddon, before 31 August 2018.
Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that Sepa had made “a sensible move” to protect the local community and encourage improvements in flaring performance. “Ineos’s appeal is a clear attempt to head off future crackdowns and avoid having to invest to improve the performance of the installation,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Anyone who buys up a plant repeatedly rated by Sepa as poor should expect to have to spend some money on it. As usual Ineos is trying to get away with doing as little as possible to improve its environmental performance.”
Dixon also criticised the secrecy surrounding the process for inhibiting public contributions. “The appeal itself is pretty opaque since the Scottish Government has agreed with Ineos to keep the actual grounds of its challenge secret,” he said.
According to Walter Inglis, the vice convener of Grangemouth Community Council, local residents had suffered years of noise and pollution. “Any attempt to undermine regulatory control based on evidence gathered from historical events has to be a concern for the adjacent communities in terms of air quality and noise impact,” he said.
A letter from a Bo’ness resident in January 2018 on the DPEA website complained about nighttime flaring by Ineos. “Not only noise but smell and oily taste is a problem when simply out for a walk with the dog,” the letter said.
Ineos confirmed it was opposing Sepa’s crackdown. “Ineos has appealed the new controls imposed by Sepa because those conditions will prevent normal operating activities in the Kinneil terminal,” a company spokesman told The Ferret.
“Specifically, the use of our elevated flare stacks, which are a critical safety system and used in planned start up and shutdown of sections of the plant, will breach the newly imposed noise limits.”
He added: “These new conditions were imposed without any consultation with Ineos and before they acquired the business. Ineos has requested appropriate time to evaluate how it could modify the existing plant configuration to allow plant operations, including start-up and shutdown, within reasonable noise limits.”
Ineos is also embroiled in a bitter court battle against the Scottish Government over its “effective ban” on fracking for underground shale gas around Grangemouth. In May 2018 the company’s chairman, Jim Ratcliffe, was named as Britain’s most wealthy individual by the Sunday Times rich list, with a personal fortune of £21 billion.
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Sepa is also trying to curb flaring from petrochemical plants run by multinationals, ExxonMobil and Shell, at Mossmorran in Fife. Sepa issued both companies with final warning letters in April 2018, but on 19 May another pump failure triggered days of unplanned flaring.
“Every day Sepa works to protect and enhance Scotland’s environment, and we are clear that compliance is non-negotiable,” said the agency’s head of continuous improvement, Lin Bunten.
“In October 2017 Sepa issued a variation notice to the permit in respect of the Kinneil terminal site regarding environmental and noise controls. The current operator Ineos FPS Limited has appealed the variation notice to Scottish Ministers. We look forward to the outcome in due course.”