The multinational oil companies that run the Mossmorran petrochemical complex in Fife are facing a legal crackdown for breaching pollution limits and endangering health after nine days of “unplanned” gas flares.

ExxonMobil and Shell are also being beset by demands for an independent inquiry into their ageing plants, which suffered a series of breakdowns last month. The worst incident resulted in a large pall of thick black smoke over Fife on 18 June.

Both companies have been accused of “showing contempt for the community” by failing to turn up for a packed public meeting in Lochgelly Town Hall on 5 July. Angry residents also attacked public agencies for failing to do enough to protect them from pollution, noise and vibrations.

ExxonMobil runs a cracker plant at Mossmorran near Cowdenbeath converting ethane gas into ethylene for the plastics industry. An adjacent plant run by Shell separates the ethane from other gases piped in from the North Sea.

The plants regularly discharge large amounts of gas from their stacks. According to the latest official figures, in 2015 they flared 13,507 tonnes of gas as well as releasing 23 tonnes of benzene, which is known to cause cancer.

But last month there were equipment failures at both the ExxonMobil and Shell plants that caused a large amount of unplanned flaring. An ExxonMobil pump breakdown on 12 June triggered flaring until 17 June.

Then an unspecified “process upset” at the Shell plant on 18 June started a second bout of flaring that lasted until 20 June. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), that included “a large smoke cloud for an extended period of around 30 minutes.”

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flaring

Photo by Paul Irvine

Sepa has launched a major legal investigation into the flaring, and will be conducting formal interviews with company staff. “It was prolonged, it was very unsatisfactory and we’re investigating potential breaches of the permit,” Sepa’s area manager, Rob Morris, told the public meeting.

“We will be looking at the permit conditions that apply to these operators with a view to taking action.” Actions could include formal warnings or undertakings, enforcement notices, fines or prosecutions, he said. “None are off the table.”

Sepa, which received over 80 complaints about the flaring, declined to say whether any pollution rules had been broken. It added that it was “currently satisfied that the emissions from the Mossmorran complex are not having a detrimental impact on air quality in the local communities.”

NHS Fife, however, has said that the black smoke emissions breached one of Mossmorran’s operating conditions, and had been linked to breathing difficulties and irritated eyes.

NHS Fife was taking the matter “very seriously”, according to public health director, Dr Margaret Hannah. It had convened a meeting of public agencies to confirm that Sepa was investigating “what appears to be a breach in the way the ethylene plant is permitted to operate”.

The public meeting was organised by the newly-formed Mossmorran Action Group, which pointed out that residents had been suffering noise, pollution and health impacts for 32 years. “The ritual apologies from ExxonMobil and Shell don’t wash any more,” said the group’s chair, James Glen.

He accused Sepa of lacking the legal teeth and manpower to monitor and control emissions. “We are calling on the Scottish Government to hold a full independent investigation into the cumulative social and environmental impacts of Mossmorran,” he said.

The Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, Alex Rowley, also demanded an independent review into “the workings, processes and current condition” of the complex. “We also need a review of the monitoring of the discharge of chemicals into the air we breathe in the surrounding towns and villages,” he said.

The local Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, argued that the two companies had refused to engage locally and should be “held to account” by the Scottish Parliament. “Shell and ExxonMobil are showing contempt for the community,” he said.

“It’s just one example of the health and wellbeing of local communities being sold out to big industry in Scotland.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland demanded “serious penalties” to deter the companies from polluting again. “Massive clouds of black smoke floating across Fife can be good for no-one,” said the group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

ExxonMobil and Shell both stressed that the best mechanism for dialogue with the local community was a community safety committee set up over 30 years ago. They said that flaring was an essential “safety valve” and they did all they could to keep it to a minimum and learn from incidents.

ExxonMobil said it was working closely with Sepa’s investigation and would be “delighted” to meet elected representatives. “We apologise to our neighbours for the flaring incidents,” said a company spokesman. “We recognise that these events caused concern and inconvenience.”

Independent monitoring had shown that emissions from Mossmorran “have no significant impact on air quality in the local communities and meet national and EU air quality objectives,” he added.

Shell said that the “process upset” at its plant had caused “intermittent flaring” but had been within legal limits. It had not resulted in any danger to staff or local communities and relevant authorities had been informed, a company spokeswoman said.

Cover image thanks to Richard Webb via CC by 2.0, and photo thanks to Paul Irvine. A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 16 July 2017.