Emergency flaring at a controversial gas plant in Fife has sparked safety fears and renewed calls for the facility to be closed down.
A giant flame and clouds of steam billowing from chimneys at Mossmorran could be seen, heard and even felt for miles around this week after technical failures led to a prolonged period of unscheduled burning activity.
Flaring is a safety measure used to burn off excess gases instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. But communities living near the plant say vibrations and air, noise and light pollution from the activity is having a serious impact on their lives.
People have complained of losing sleep due to “noises like a jet airline taking off”, while the intensity of the flames is described as “turning night into day”.
Local families have reported children wetting their bed in terror at the rumbling and having fearful conversations with school friends about whether the plant is going to blow up.
The impact has even been felt by people living across the Forth as far away as Edinburgh and Dalkeith.
Concerns have also been raised over the effect of carbon particles on air quality in the area and potential harm to the environment.
Combined, the two plants at Mossmorran are the second biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in Scotland – after the Ineos petrochemical complex at Grangemouth – between them belching out more than 1.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. The ExxonMobil plant is responsible for the lion’s share – more than 885,580 tonnes.
The Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has been bombarded with correspondence from concerned politicians, campaigners and members of the public over the past few days.
Petrochemical giant ExxonMobil, which owns part of the complex, has apologised for the latest unplanned flaring, saying it was necessary to allow repair work after two of its three boilers broke down. The plant has now been fully shut down to allow maintenance and is expected to remain out of action for around four weeks.
But the latest unplanned flaring incident, which began on Monday evening, is the fourth so far this year. And it comes just weeks after a routine inspection by health and safety executives revealed that potentially explosive ethane had been leaking from a pipe at the plant for “a number of weeks”.
Several other incidents involving ExxonMobil and Shell, which shares the site and operates the adjacent Fife Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) plant, have been reported to regulators at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) over the past few years.
These include 5.5 days of noise and vibration and 1.25 days of flaring in June 2017, 3.25 days of noise and vibration in October 2017, three days of noise and vibration in March 2018 and four days of noise and vibration in May 2018 at the ExxonMobil plant, as well as black smoke being emitted for 26 minutes during flaring in June 2017 at the Shell facility.
Sepa issued final warning letters to both companies in April 2018 for breaching operating permit conditions.
However, the most recent incidents have seen the environment watchdog’s “effectiveness and credibility” called into question by politicians and campaigners.
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP and Scottish Labour deputy leader Lesley Laird says the latest incidents cast doubt on the meaningfulness of such “final” warnings.
“The effectiveness and credibility of the government agency responsible for protecting our communities, Sepa, is now being called into serious question in terms of their capacity, capability and resources,” she wrote in a letter to the Environment Secretary.
“Even beyond the serious concerns of health, trust and confidence in the plant operation there is now increasing alarm about the ineffectiveness of Sepa to adequately address and act on the continuing non-compliance with the operating permit for this site. The current permit seems wholly out of date and inadequate in regulating these plants in a way that is relevant to the current circumstances.”
The Mossmorran Action Group (MAG) was formed by local citizens “in response to the long-term impacts residents have faced from operations at the Mossmorran petrochemical facilities”. James Glen, the campaign group’s chairman, says: “Communities living in the shadow of Mossmorran have had enough of emergency flaring.
“By definition, no-one knows when a bout of emergency flaring is going to take place or when it will cease. No one knows if emergency flaring signals a plant on its last legs and in imminent danger of exploding.
“No proper analysis has been carried out of the harmful effects of the black reek emitted – even though it is acknowledged to contain known toxins such as butadiene, sulphur oxides, toluene and NMVOCs (non-methane volatile organic compounds). No study has taken place of the long-term effects of the anxiety, insomnia and pollution on people’s health and quality of life.”
The group is critical of the way ministers have handled concerns over Mossmorran and is calling for urgent action to protect local people and the environment.
He added: “The Scottish Government is hiding behind Sepa, an under-resourced regulatory agency whose focus is confined to discreet breaches of licence compliance. It lacks the political and legal teeth to establish the full range of adverse impacts or pursue timely corrective action.
“Fife Council as well as MSPs from all parties have called for an independent expert study into the long-term health, social and environmental impacts of the plant’s operations but so far the Scottish Government has buried its head in the sand. Despite declaring a climate emergency, and Mossmorran being Scotland’s third-worst carbon emitter, ministers have refused to meet community representatives.”
Scottish Green MSP Mark Ruskell, the party’s environment, climate and energy spokesman, has also written to Cunningham, demanding action to “end the misery of local residents living in the shadow of the Mossmorran ethylene plant”.
He insists the planned and unplanned flaring last week demonstrates the need for tougher regulations and transition plans for permanent closure of the plant in order to meet Scottish and international climate goals.
As well as causing significant air, light and noise pollution, he claims it is likely the operator committed an illegal breach of permit after local residents reported black smoke alongside flaring for longer than the allowed 15 minutes.
He is asking the minister to meet with local residents, strengthen environmental regulations, launch an independent review and protect jobs by beginning preparations to decommission the site.
“Residents across Fife have had enough,” he says. “People near this plant have been subjected to massive levels of pollution, and they tell me the flaring this week may have been an illegal breach of permit. I hope Sepa will check the CCTV footage to see if black smoke has been evident.
“The cabinet secretary needs to come to Fife and speak to the people who have lost sleep and had their lives impacted by this.
“The current regulations clearly aren’t strong enough. Mossmorran is a clear example of how inadequate environmental protections can have a massive impact on people’s day-to-day lives and public health. For example, we need vibration and light pollution to be included within the regulatory regime.”
He believes the plant’s closure is “inevitable”, adding: “As well as causing immediate pollution and distress, Mossmorran is a massive greenhouse gas emitter and incompatible with the climate emergency.”
Fife councillors have also written to the Scottish Government to request an impartial assessment of the impacts of operations at Mossmorran.
Nigel Kerr, chief officer of protective services at Fife Council, said: “Councillor and community concerns about flaring at Mossmorran were discussed at the Fife Council meetings on 2 May and 27 June. In accordance with motions passed at that meeting, the council’s co-leaders have twice written to Cunningham, to request the Scottish Government lead an independent study into the impacts of Mossmorran.
“As well as reinforcing community concerns, the council highlighted the need, in the longer term, to look at future opportunities as Scotland transitions to a new, lower-carbon economy.
“The Scottish Government has indicated that no further studies will be considered until Sepa has completed its current investigations.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “We are clear that prolonged, unplanned flaring is unacceptable. Sepa is currently responding to the latest flaring incident and carrying out a formal investigation into prolonged unplanned flaring earlier this year. We understand Sepa plans to issue further statements on its regulatory position in relation to the plant in the near future.”
But ExxonMobil insists its Mossmorran operation has a valuable role to play in the local community, providing more than 250 jobs and bringing in more than £30 million a year to the economy. The firm says the plant is “a key strategic asset” with “a long-term future in Scotland” and it plans to continue investing in and upgrading facilities on site.
Stuart Neill, external affairs manager for ExxonMobil, said: “The Fife Ethylene Plant has operated safely for over 35 years. While we recognise that flaring can cause some public concern, this safety procedure has no impact on air quality or public health.
“We are, however, committed to addressing community concerns regarding potential noise, light and vibration associated with flaring, and so we are implementing a comprehensive programme of technological and process enhancements to further reduce the frequency and duration of flaring.
“Furthermore, in taking the significant step of temporarily shutting down operations, we can effect maintenance to our boilers and also use the opportunity to undertake a programme of parallel work that will continue to improve reliability.
Sepa announced on Friday that its enquiry following the “final warnings” found both the ExxonMobil and Shell plants had failed to use all Best Available Techniques (BAT) for flaring and proposed upgrades were “unacceptable”.
The operating permits will be altered in the next seven days to include required timescales for the implementation of BAT.
Sepa also confirmed it will fully investigate the latest flaring incident.
Chris Dailly, head of environmental performance at the agency, said: “Sepa has repeatedly said that compliance with Scotland’s environmental rules is simply non-negotiable. Communities across Fife have had to endure repeated preventable and unacceptable flaring.
“We’ve heard clearly the frustration of local people and are today reaching another key milestone in our regulatory response, which will drive necessary action to upgrade the site and limit its impact on local communities.
“We’ve published in full the proposals from both companies, our responses and our latest air quality monitoring summary report. We’ll publish more information next week and are committed to keeping people informed.”
The agency will continue to provide regular updates across its Mossmorran hub, and reports of pollution can be made at any time through its online reporting tool.
What is Mossmorran?
The Mossmorran complex encompasses the Fife Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) plant, operated by Shell, and the Fife Ethylene Plant (FEP), operated by ExxonMobil.
It is part of the North Sea Brent oil and gas field system and is located on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath.
Gas is separated from oil on offshore platforms, with the gas then pumped ashore to a terminal at St Fergus operated by Shell.
There methane is extracted from the rest of the gas product, with the remaining NGL piped 139 miles to Mossmorran. Additional product comes from the marine terminal at Braefoot Bay, also in Fife.
At Fife NGL fractionation plant, natural gas fluid is separated by distillation into ethane, propane, butane and pentane, which are used as fuel.
The ethane is then piped to the adjacent FEP for further processing and cracking into ethylene, which is used in plastics manufacturing.
The processed liquids are then transported via pipeline to Braefoot Bay to be loaded on to ships for export.
Mossmorran also has an adjacent tanker terminal for road transportation of propane and butane.
FEP is one of Europe’s largest and most modern ethylene plants. It was originally designed to produce 500,000 tonnes of ethylene each year, but this has increased to 830,000 tonnes.
Construction began in 1981 and the plant was officially opened by the Queen in 1986. It was the first specifically designed to use natural gas liquids from the North Sea as feedstock.
Both Fife NGL and FEP have top-tier designations under Control of Major Accident Hazards regulations, which aim to prevent disasters involving dangerous substances and limit their impact on people and the environment.