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THE Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) are taking legal action over “unacceptable flaring” at Mossmorran in April 2019.
They’ve announced they will submit a report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal for the possible prosecution of ExxonMobil, the operators of the Fife Ethylene Plant.
More than 900 complaints were received by SEPA after the incident last year, which saw unplanned flaring over a seven day period at the site and thick black smoke, which was visible for miles, spewing from the flue stack.
Residents complained of a “roaring” noise, light and air pollution, which the company said was caused by “an interruption to the operation on one of our steam generating boilers”.
Terry A’Hearn, chief executive of SEPA, said: “Compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws is simply non-negotiable.
“Over a number of years, communities across Fife have repeatedly endured unplanned flaring.
“Whilst flaring is an important safety mechanism of such facilities, it must become the exception, rather than routine.
“People rightly expect that their lives won’t be impacted by nearby industrial processes and yet again, over an extended period during Easter 2019, communities were impacted by unacceptable and preventable flaring.
“The incident resulted in over 900 complaints to our pollution hotline, the highest number we’ve received for any single environmental event.
“Consequently, following an extensive investigation into the flaring at Mossmorran during April 2019, we intend to shortly submit a report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service for consideration of prosecution.”
The legal action follows an extensive investigation and follows a final warning letter that was issued to the company in 2018 over incidents of unplanned flaring, which have caused a great deal of anxiety in nearby communities.
Shell UK, who run the NGL plant next door at Mossmorran, were also issued a final warning letter at the same time for the same reason.
Mr A’Hearn said: “It’s right that we take enforcement action for the Easter 2019 flaring event.
“What is just as important is that ExxonMobil address the root-causes of ‘unacceptable flaring’.
“Today we’ve announced a series of important steps and a pathway to compliance at Mossmorran.
“We’ve been clear with both operators on what we and the community expect and have outlined the steps they need to take to make this happen.
“Whilst flaring will continue to be required, this must become the exception rather than routine.
“We’ll keep a firm focus on compliance, monitoring and the package of measures required over the period ahead and we’ll keep local communities informed at sepa.org.uk/mossmorran.”
SEPA said the actions of ExxonMobil continue to be under review during the coronavirus pandemic with an “intensified” compliance programme to focus on the steps the company is taking to prevent and minimise flaring.
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson and Fife MSP Mark Ruskell said: “This is a very welcome and unprecedented intervention by SEPA.
“The agency said it received more complaints over this flaring incident than any other environmental event in history, which reflects the level of suffering felt by those who have had to live in the shadow of this fossil fuel relic for years.
“I also heard from so many constituents during this time, families who endured six days of hell and more since, so I’m relieved that their voices have been heard and action taken.
“If we are serious about the health and wellbeing of our communities, we need this kind of rigour from our environmental watchdog.”
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP, Neale Hanvey, said: “I understand the significant anxiety that has been caused across local communities by the operations at Mossmorran.
“Throughout, it has been my position that the regulators should be allowed the time to conduct their investigation and arrive at a conclusion. I hope that this significant development reassures the communities I represent that the regulators have taken the matter seriously and conducted a rigorous investigation.”
He added: “I am also encouraged by the announcement of an external review into the regulations by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. This will help share best practice and advise on further actions that may be taken to drive compliance.
“I hope all these steps and the continued investment by the operators to manage the site effectively and safely will pave the way to rebuild trust with local communities and help secure jobs that are vital to the local economy.”
James Glen, chair of Mossmorran Action Group, said: “This is extremely welcome news. The flaring during Easter a year ago was absolutely unacceptable and communities who had no choice but to suffer it will be hoping the full force of the law is now brought to bear on ExxonMobil.
“However, it should not have taken SEPA over a year to reach this point. In the intervening months Exxon have had to shut down operations for six months because two boilers exploded and communities have been forced to endure two further unacceptable bouts of extreme emergency flaring, which remain under investigation by SEPA.
“Either the Scottish Government needs to change the law, or give SEPA the resources it needs to act more promptly to regulate Exxon and give exposed communities the protection ministers promise them.”
An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: “Fife Ethylene Plant works to the highest regulatory standards, is committed to its environmental responsibilities and complies with all applicable laws.
“We fully understand the need to address any community concerns associated with the use of our flare and have already announced a number of initiatives and investments to help us achieve this.
“This includes a 14-step action plan introducing new technology, processes and training that will not only reduce the frequency of flaring events but also noise, light and vibration that can sometimes be experienced when flaring occurs.
“We have co-operated openly and constructively with SEPA throughout its investigation into the flaring event in April 2019, and continue to do so. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”