Two oil multinationals have repeatedly failed to reduce the risks of major accidents at petrochemical plants in Fife, according to documents released by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Shell and ExxonMobil have both been accused of “putting profit before safety” at the Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay complex near Dunfermline after reports of HSE inspections over the last three years revealed a series of problems.
HSE expressed “serious concerns” about Shell’s failure to replace a potentially leaky seal in 2016, and upbraided the company for staffing “inadequacies” after a leak. ExxonMobil was criticised for failing to renew fire protection measures in 2015, and for not complying with 11 out of 12 safety recommendations in October 2017.
The companies, however, stressed that they had addressed the concerns raised. Shell said it had invested heavily in improvements, and ExxonMobil accused campaigners of “cherry-picking” the HSE reports.
Both companies are under active investigation by HSE and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) after four unplanned flaring incidents over 25 days in June and October 2017 and March and May 2018. The incidents were blamed on pump failures and other process “upsets”.
Shell operates a gas extraction plant and ExxonMobil runs an ethylene production plant next to each other at Mossmorran. Both companies use a jetty at nearby Braefoot Bay on the Firth of Forth for exports.
The sites are regularly inspected by HSE as “major accident hazards” because of risks that gases could leak, catch fire and explode. According to the HSE, ExxonMobil has identified 38 major accident hazards at Mossmorran and 14 at Braefoot Bay.
HSE has released 17 files amounting to nearly 200 pages on its inspections of Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay in 2015, 2016 and 2017. They listed 23 “issues” at Shell plants, one of which was said not to have been completed, and 10 issues at ExxonMobil facilities, four of which were described as “ongoing”.
HSE has withheld files on the uncompleted problems, but has provided detailed information on some of those that have been resolved. HSE was particularly worried in July 2016 about Shell’s failure over “a number of years” to repair flawed seals on a gas compressor that could have resulted in leaks.
An HSE inspector, whose name has been redacted, was “extremely concerned” that the company dropped one solution because it would cost too much and failed to investigate alternatives. “This does not reflect a business that is well focused on managing risks,” the inspector said.
Two HSE reports mention an investigation into a “loss of containment incident” at Shell’s Braefoot Bay loading terminal on 21 April 2016, which is not further explained.
This had “highlighted apparent inadequacies in the provision of suitably competent and experienced process, reliability and technical safety engineers with sufficient time available to identify and assess required improvements to controls to prevent a major accident,” an inspector said.
In February 2016 an HSE inspector raised the risk of human errors interpreting multiple alarms. There were said to be 2,000 “critical alarms” at Shell facilities, some including “old equipment and processes”.
“My concern is that a control room operator may incorrectly diagnose an upset condition, possibly leading to a major accident, due to the current high number of critical alarms,” the inspector said.
In August 2016 HSE cautioned Shell that relying on operator responses to alarms to prevent a major accident hazard was unlikely to meet the need for risks to be “as low as reasonably practicable” (ALARP). It required the company “to address this as a matter of urgency.”
According to HSE, Shell delayed replacing secondary seals on the rims of two gasoline tanks from 2013 to 2015 and then again to 2017. An inspector pointed out that Mossmorran was in excess of 20 years old and “what may have been considered ALARP 20-30 years ago, may not be considered ALARP today.”
In July 2016 HSE reported a problem with “bursting discs” during ship loading by Shell at Braefoot Bay. “I am concerned that the site has in excess of 30 years operational experience of loading ships from the jetty at Braefoot Bay, yet have failed to consider this operational experience when making significant changes,” an inspector said.
HSE criticised ExxonMobil in 2015 for failing to replace a “severely damaged” fire protection coating on the jetty at Braefoot Bay because it was seen as a financial risk rather than “safety critical”. HSE issued a statutory improvement notice to force action.
In March 2017 inspectors found two leaks in the pipework that supplied saltwater to douse fires at Braefoot Bay. In October 2017 HSE reported that 11 out of 12 formal recommendations it had made in 2014 and 2016 to resolve “omissions”, “confusion” and “inadequate” safety procedures hadn’t been completed.
Companies must stop ‘corner cutting’
The HSE files were obtained by the Green MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell. “These reports reveal a corporate culture where health and safety compliance sits at a bare minimum and where actions demanded by the regulator are allowed to drift from year to year,” he said.
“It’s clear that the operators have, like the plant itself, failed to move with the times with an underinvestment in corroding infrastructure, safety systems and specialist staff.”
He called for HSE and Sepa to include such concerns in their joint investigation. “The operators have a responsibility to stop the corner cutting and get the plants operating at a higher standard,” he argued.
The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Lesley Laird, has written to HSE, Sepa, Shell and ExxonMobil asking for more information on the safety problems. “I’ll be seeking immediate reassurances that the plant – as it stands now – is compliant with HSE and Sepa safety standards,” she said.
“While it’s important to understand these reports date back to previous years and some issues have already been resolved, the content does raise valid concerns about the robustness of safety practices, risk management and maintenance of the plant,” she added.
“We don’t have access to data from recent inspections, since those reports form part of a live investigation into flaring episodes at Mossmorran, nor do we have a proper understanding of what these reports mean to the here and now.”
James Glen from the local Mossmorran Action Group described revelations from the HSE files as “really shocking”. “We cannot trust the PR coming from ExxonMobil and Shell,” he said.
“These documents prove once and for all what communities around Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay have long suspected: the plants are ageing, corners are being cut and the operators are putting profit before safety.”
He accused the two companies of ignoring HSE’s concerns. “Can HSE and Sepa really keep us safe and prevent a major accident at these plants?” he asked.
“Anyone who reads these documents must have grave doubts about their ability to hold these multinationals to account.”
Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling, commended HSE inspectors for identifying failings. “The bad news is that effective enforcement action by the regulator for continued persistent failings at the two companies appears to have failed,” he said.
“Such failings could have led to catastrophe and indicate high level HSE policy on this matter needs urgent review to hold multinational companies to account. The lessons from the Piper Alpha disaster appear to have been forgotten in parts of the oil and gas industry.”
Shell insisted that it prioritised the safety of its staff, assets and care for the environment. “We take all HSE findings very seriously and we maintain a regular dialogue with the regulator on the safe operation of our sites,” said a company spokesman.
“We have addressed the concerns raised in the inspection reports and we continually focus on, and improve, the integrity and reliability of our assets through the effort of our employees and significant investment.”
He added: “We have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in our facilities over the last few years, upgrading, replacing and maintaining the crucial North Sea energy supply infrastructure that we operate, including a recent project to renew of all four ship-loading arms at Braefoot Bay marine terminal.”
ExxonMobil suggested that negative comments had been “cherry picked” from the HSE files. “There are currently no actions overdue,” said a company spokesman.
“As recently as February this year, the HSE confirmed that there are no serious deficiencies in the necessary preventative measures at the Fife ethylene plant.”
The company had always had a good working relationship with HSE and complied with all applicable regulations, he stated. “We are committed to the highest standards of health and safety.”
He added: “Our operations include regular internal inspections to ensure we maintain our excellent record. This is reflected in the fact that in the past 22 years there have been no serious injuries at all on site.”
The HSE pointed out that inspections of “major hazard” sites involved a detailed examination of multiple layers of protection in place to prevent major accidents.
“This requires operators to demonstrate they have sufficient safety barriers to prevent accidents from escalating and sufficient barriers to mitigate the consequences if a major accident occurs,” said an HSE spokeswoman.
“Where we find issues with individual controls within those protective layers we ensure that they are corrected and take appropriate enforcement action as necessary. If any plant were deemed to be unsafe following inspection because there were failures in all of the safety barriers we would stop operations immediately.”
Sepa stressed that compliance with environmental rules was “non-negotiable”. As well as conducting an investigation with HSE, in June it tightened the operating permits for noise and vibrations from flaring at Mossmorran.
“While the investigation is currently ongoing we will continue to listen to the concerns of the local community and are committed to providing updates as this investigation progresses,” said Sepa’s chief executive, Terry A’Hearn.