The Scottish Government’s green watchdog is threatening court action against the petrochemical giant, Ineos, for failing to limit pollution from gas flaring near Grangemouth.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has served a final warning notice on Ineos after repeated failures to remedy a breach of the operating permit for the Kinneil oil and gas terminal on the Firth of Forth.

“Non-compliance will not be tolerated,” says Sepa. Unless Ineos promises to fix the problem, enforcement action “could including the submission of a report to the Procurator Fiscal recommending prosecution”, it warns.

Sepa’s move has been welcomed by environmentalists and local residents, who condemn Ineos as a “bad neighbour”. The company has not commented.

Ineos bought the Kinneil terminal from the oil multinational BP for $250m (£186m) in October 2017, along with the huge North Sea Forties pipeline system (FPS). But the terminal came with a long history of complaints, investigations and breaches.

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.

Sepa investigated 15 complaints about noise and pollution from local people from 2015 to 2017. In May 2018 The Ferret revealed that Ineos was trying to block new flaring controls being imposed by Sepa.

Ineos tries to block pollution controls on flaring at Grangemouth

In June Sepa served Ineos FPS an initial warning letter, saying it would consider further enforcement action if there was no “clear plan” for limiting flaring. Sepa inspectors then met company managers on 11 September but concluded there was “no resolution coming forward for the major non-compliance”.

Now, in a final warning letter, Sepa has pointed out that there were four local complaints of noise from overnight flaring on 15 and 16 August. “Sepa did not accept the approach used by Ineos FPS to discount these complaints,” the letter stated.

Sepa was told that “under no circumstances would the spade physically isolating the ground flares” be removed. Ground flares are regarded as less noisy and polluting than elevated flares from stacks.

Sepa again warned the company that it had to come up with a clear plan to resolve the breach of its operating permit by 31 October 2018. Otherwise any further or continued breaches “will result in enforcement action being taken against you by Sepa.”

Sepa accepted flaring was an important safety mechanism and was permitted under licensing conditions. But a spokesperson added: “Sepa is clear that compliance is non-negotiable and is working with Ineos FPS regarding minimising impacts of flaring on local communities.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland described Sepa’s crackdown as good news. “Ineos were aware of the standards they would have to meet before they bought the Kinneil terminal last year, and have had plenty of time to adhere to them,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“The company has repeatedly put profit above health, safety and the environment both here in Scotland and at its plants around the world. Sepa is right to use all of the tools at its disposal, including recommending criminal prosecution for serious, repeated environmental breaches like this.”

Failure to comply with permit conditions makes the operator a bad neighbour. Walter Inglis, Grangemouth Community Council

Grangemouth Community Council has been working for two years with Sepa and local industry to get them to understand how their activities impact on the local community. “We welcome Sepa’s robust action to ensure compliance with the permit conditions governing the operation of the Ineos Kinneil site,” said the council’s vice convener, Walter Inglis.

“Failure to comply with permit conditions makes the operator a bad neighbour and any relaxation of permit conditions put in place to protect the adjacent community would be clearly unacceptable.”

Andy Gheorghiu, a campaigner with Food & Water Europe, was not surprised that Ineos was “again trying to avoid proper measures against flaring”. He criticised the company’s pollution record across Europe.

Ineos did not respond to requests to comment. The company issued a statement via Twitter on 28 September announcing that there may be “intermittent controlled flaring” because a processing plant was being restarted. “We will make every effort to minimise the level and duration of the flaring,” the company said.

Ineos said in May that new controls proposed by Sepa would “prevent normal operating activities in the Kinneil terminal.”

A company spokesperson said then: “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.”

In June Ineos lost 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.

Court rejects Ineos bid for multi-million pound damages over ‘fracking ban’

In full: the final warning letter from Scottish Environment Protection Agency to Ineos


This story was updated at 17.50 on 28 September 2018 to include a tweet from Ineos FPS on flaring. Photo thanks to Richard Webb via CC 2.0.