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The Mossmorran plant in Fife, Scotland has been shut down for a month over safety fears due to unplanned flaring.
Plant operator ExxonMobil notified the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) of the move on Thursday, apologising for the latest incident. But residents remain unhappy at the company’s lack of engagement with the community, and the Scottish government’s failure to protect them.
ExxonMobil said two of the site’s three boilers had failed, and flaring was necessary while the plant was shut down to evaluate what repair work was required.
The plant, which is operated jointly by ExxonMobil and Shell, had earlier in the week cancelled a planned visit by Green Party MSP Mark Ruskell while SEPA investigated unplanned flaring at the plant. Ruskell has repeatedly called for an independent inquiry into pollution from the plant.
In a statement, he said: “I appreciate the greater detail ExxonMobil have provided us this time round regarding the cause of the latest outage, but the failure of two out of three boilers at the plant constitutes a major breakdown. No wonder the local community is concerned.”
“It all adds to the growing evidence that we need an independent inquiry into the condition and safety of Mossmorran.”
“I was due to visit the site tomorrow and had a long list of questions to put to the operators, but this has now been cancelled. This would have been a good opportunity for ExxonMobil to show what happens on the plant during these incidents and demonstrate their commitment to the highest possible maintenance regime.”
On Wednesday, plant manager Jacob McAlister issued a statement to the community saying:
“We have made the necessary arrangements to stop the flow of gas from the North Sea, allowing us to take the key steps of taking our furnaces out of operation.”
Local Councillor Mary Lockhart told DeSmog that the impact on the community goes beyond isolated incidents, however. She said:
“The Scottish Government needs to recognise that the issues raised by the operation of both facilities and Mossmorran raise issues far beyond environmental pollution. Flaring, scheduled or not, in a heavily populated area has profound social impacts, which the Scottish Government continues to ignore, and refuse to commission an independent social impact investigation called for by both the communities and the Council.”
“It continues to dismiss or ignore the issue of loss of confidence, trust, and faith in the institutions of health, of safeguard and of government.”
“It will not even begin to discuss the possibility of winding down, let alone decommissioning, either the gas plant or the plastics factory … and of integrating such processes with a cross cutting environmental and industrial strategy.”
MSP Ruskell has written to Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham asking her to meet with local residents, strengthen environmental regulations, launch an independent review and protect jobs by beginning preparations for decommissioning the plant. He added:
“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.”
“Looking at how the owners have underfunded it, Mossmorran’s closure is inevitable. We owe it to the workers and the community there to plan for a just transition for the plant now.”
The crisis at the beleaguered plant is becoming a critical test for faith of the environmental regulatory body SEPA, and of the Scottish Government’s seriousness towards their commitment to addressing the “climate emergency”, which MPs formally declared in April 2019.
Exxon is considering pulling out of the North Sea region altogether, adding to residents’ fears that Mossmorran may be closed, leaving job losses and a legacy of ill health.
Reuters reports that ExxonMobil has had talks with a number of operators to gauge interest in selling some or all of their assets in the North Sea, with a worth estimated at $2 billion.
If this was to go ahead it would follow similar moves by U.S. rivals Chevron and ConocoPhillips which earlier this year sold the bulk of their North Sea operations.
But the move has led some to speculate that the company would look to withdraw from Mossmorran as well, as it is clear the plant needs considerable investment. Whatever the outcome of the wider role of Exxon’s operations, the future of the Mossmorran plant is at a critical stage.
Image: © Richard Webb