The refinery run by the petrochemical giant Ineos at Grangemouth has been condemned for its “poor” environmental performance for the second year running following a series of pollution blunders.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has given the plant one of its lowest performance ratings because of nine incidents that caused pollution in 2016. The plant was also assessed as poor in 2015.

Documents released by Sepa under freedom of information law also reveal that there was a gas leak under a road at the site on 1 March this year. Last Tuesday workers had to be evacuated and a public road closed at Grangemouth when a leak was detected at Ineos’s Kinneil Gas plant.

The revelations sparked concern from residents, experts, trade unionists, environmentalists and politicians, who question the company’s fracking ambitions. Ineos, however, points out that four other Sepa assessments at Grangemouth in 2016 were good or excellent, and is pleased with its overall performance.

Sepa assesses the environmental performance of all industries in Scotland, on a scale ranging from “excellent” to “very poor”. The main incident that caused the Ineos refinery to be rated as “poor” in 2016 was a major discharge of sulphur on 9 May 2016.

A “power dip” and the failure of back-up power supply tripped three units, causing flaring and the release of 40 tonnes of sulphur over 18 hours. According to the report Ineos made to Sepa, this breached 27 different air pollution standards, though not broader “air quality objectives”.

There were five other unplanned sulphur discharges in 2016, all by flaring. These were caused by “human error” shutting off the wrong pump in March, having to repair a damaged pipeline in June and other problems.

There was also an overflowing pollution tank in April, a carbon monoxide release in breach of an environmental standard in August and a loud “whining noise” in November prompting complaints from Bo’ness.

Another Ineos report to Sepa disclosed that there was a “pinhole” gas leak on 1 March 2017 from a culvert under the road at the junction of Overton Road and 3rd Street. This resulted in unplanned flaring and the discharge of 16 tonnes of sulphur over ten days.

An investigation is also underway into a gas leak on 2 May at the Kinneil Gas plant run by Ineos at Grangemouth. It caused a scare locally after emergency procedures led to road closures and site access restrictions while the leak was being isolated.

Grangemouth Community Council expressed concern about the refinery’s poor assessments. “The most disappointing aspect is the frequency with which failures are occurring,” said the council’s vice convener, Walter Inglis.

“In light of events at the site on Tuesday and the potential impact that could have befallen the surrounding community, it is extremely concerning that it would appear that lessons are not being learned and improvements made.”

Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling, pointed out that minor failings could be catastrophic at complex plants. “Multiple recent reported incidents at Ineos Grangemouth are potentially serious and do not inspire confidence,” he said.

“When a regulator like Sepa finds a company like Ineos at Grangemouth has a poor pollution record for consecutive years, sometimes for problems supposedly fixed in previous years, that is a cause for real concern.”

The trade union Unite, which has been involved in a prolonged and bitter dispute with Ineos, urged the company to work more closely with the union on health and safety. “This is extremely concerning,” said Unite assistant general secretary, Howard Beckett.

“Unite has called upon the company to meet with us regarding the most recent leakage so that we can work constructively to protect the community. These latest figures underscore the urgency of that meeting.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland described the disclosures about the refinery’s record as “alarming”. Regulators should intervene with “the full force of the law”, argued the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

Ineos is bidding to frack for shale gas between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the Scottish Government is due to decide whether to allow it to go ahead later this year. According to Church, the company’s poor track record reinforced the case for banning fracking.

The Labour MSP for Central Scotland, Richard Leonard, who has asked questions in the Scottish Parliament about Ineos’s record, wanted community concerns to be addressed. “I think the time has come for Sepa to establish a permanent base in Grangemouth,” he said.

Sepa insisted it would get tough when necessary. “Sepa will take tough action where a business is not taking compliance seriously and presents an unacceptable risk to the environment and communities,” said the agency’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn.

“The incidents which occurred during 2015 and 2016 were all investigated by Sepa and although they collectively resulted in a poor compliance rating none of the incidents necessitated the most significant enforcement action.”

He added: “As a result of tighter controls applied by Sepa and investment by Ineos there have been significant reductions in overall emissions of sulphur dioxide which is reflected in the improvement in air quality in Grangemouth in recent years.”

Despite the poor rating for the refinery, Sepa said “the site should receive due credit for minimising flaring and sulphur emissions and continuing to invest in maintaining and upgrading the complex equipment in use there.”

The refinery is only one of several facilities, including a major chemicals plant, operated by Ineos at Grangemouth. “Despite the bias of the journalistic reporting, Ineos would like to point out that Sepa has rated the Grangemouth site, Scotland’s largest industrial site, as being excellent or good in four out of five of its compliance assessment scheme reports in 2016,” said the company’s communications manager, David East.

“Indeed for 2015, four out of five were all rated as excellent. Given the rigorousness and strict standards against which we are assessed and that the scheme reports under, we are pleased with this assessment by the regulator of our overall performance.”

He added: “However, we will always work hard to ensure safe operations and continual improvement in all that we do. Where improvements are required we have identified these and are working closely with the regulator to deliver an ongoing improvement in our safety performance.”

The Ferret is publishing a selection of the documents on Ineos plants at Grangemouth released by Sepa. The full 40MB set is available on Sepa’s disclosure log as a zip file here, with the response letter here.



Photo thanks to Richard Webb licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 7 May 2017.