I begin by thanking those members who signed my motion to enable the debate to take place today and the Labour business manager for agreeing time for the debate.
I was a teenager when planning was first sought for the Mossmorran petrochemical plant in Fife and when the work on the site first began. There was a view locally that many jobs would be created, not just in the construction of the site, but also because of the great boon for the local economy of the downstream work that would follow, as well as the spin-off opportunities for new industry in agriculture being fed from the site.
It is true that the plant’s construction brought plenty of work and the local economy has benefited, but nothing like to the extent that was envisaged by those who were the strongest advocates of the plant in those early days.
Throughout the years, concerns have continued to be expressed about the chemicals that come from the site into the air that we breathe locally. Over many years, I have worked with the former chair of the Cowdenbeath area committee, Councillor Willie Clarke, and have brought NHS Fife to the table to discuss the concerns. However, I believe that it is fair to say that, for much of that period, the community has not lived in fear about the safety of the plant itself—that is, until the past few years, when the episodes of unplanned flaring have increased at a pace that is causing major concern for the communities around the plant and much further afield. That is the key point that I want to make today and the key point that I have made in correspondence with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. Most important of all, it is the key point that local people are making in growing numbers. We have lost confidence that the plant is safe.
Why has the situation come about? Every time that there is an episode of unplanned flaring, that means that something has broken in the plant. Flaring is a safety mechanism when the plant is unable to run, so, when the flaring is unplanned, that means that something has gone wrong. I do not know how many members have witnessed the flare of Mossmorran. At night time, the pulsating orange glow illuminates the surrounding towns. Ironically, a flaring incident took place during earth hour this year, lighting up the sky of Fife when, all round the world, people were turning off their lights to show solidarity with the aim of protecting our environment. I was told by someone driving past the plant during a flaring incident that they felt as if they were driving past Mordor.
The issue is not just that the sky is lit up at night. The levels of vibration and noise are very frightening for residents. I refer members to the website of the Mossmorran action group, where they can read a summary of 169 issues reported by local residents. Those include vibration and humming; sleep disturbance; irritable throat, eyes and skin; breathing-related issues; excessive noise levels; headaches and migraines; chemical smells; stress and anxiety; pain and ringing in the ears; and soot and particulate matter.
A lady from Lumphinnans contacted me yesterday when she saw in the local press that we were having the debate today. She wanted me to point out that the ornaments in her house visibly shake. A resident from Kelty recently described it to me as being like a helicopter landing in the back garden. Last June, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, I was in shock as I saw thick black smoke belch from the top of a stack and form a massive black cloud that sat over the top of the houses in Lochgelly, Glencraig, Crosshill, Lochore and Ballingry. It cannot be right, and it is not right, that people in those communities are having to go through those experiences and are now living in fear of the Mossmorran chemical plant that is on their doorstep. That is why I, along with many other politicians and local groups, have been demanding action.
A final warning was issued by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in relation to a flaring event that took place in June last year, yet, following that incident, there were unplanned flaring events in October, March and again in May. To be clear, those events are not short episodes of a few hours; they are usually continuous and last for days on end. It is simply not acceptable for people to have to put up with that for so long, with little being done to address the problem at its core.
One of the key questions is: why does the plant keep breaking down? It is a 30-year-old plant, and we need to know what the issues are and how they can be addressed. The fact that breakdowns and therefore unplanned flaring events are increasing in number as the plant gets older must be addressed. That question must be answered by the operator of the plant, the public authorities and, ultimately, the Government.
Six days ago, SEPA announced that the operators of the petrochemical facilities that are run at the Fife ethylene plant by Shell and ExxonMobil are to face an inquiry, in a joint investigation by SEPA and the Health and Safety Executive. That has been welcomed across the communities of Fife, but we need to know that there will be transparency. SEPA has said:
“compliance with Scotland’s environmental rules is simply non-negotiable.”
The people of Fife need the confidence that that is the case and confidence in the safety of their surroundings and the place in which they live.
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