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RESIDENTS around the Mossmorran petrochemical plant in Fife were right when they first expressed community health and environment fears before it was built – while regulators and industry got it wrong on pollution and public health, according to a damning new report.
And the document said the global petrochemical industry has frequently failed to disclose knowledge of harms – known to them for many years – that their processes and products have done to public health.
In “Flaring and Glaring – Emissions and Omissions in Fife”, public health expert Professor Andrew Watterson, from the University of Stirling, said many of the middle and long-term physical and psychological health effects of the site on local communities had been poorly studied, analysed, or documented over decades.
“There has been a long standing international and national failure to identify the harms done to local and regional populations by air pollution, environmental carcinogens, endocrine disruptors at very low levels, their mixtures and combined biological and physical insults from industrial complexes,” he said.
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The Mossmorran site, which became operational in 1985, comprises Shell’s Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) plant and the Fife Ethylene Plant (FEP) run by ExxonMobil.
It has stirred much controversy over the years, and the report said regulators had struggled to effectively monitor and inspect these industries and hold them accountable.
“Inadequate UK-wide control standards were used and regulators lacked resources, staff,” it said. “In recent years regulators were hampered by ideologically driven, weak ‘better’ and ‘deregulatory’ approaches that impacted on all responsible for oversight of the Mossmorran plants.”
Watterson said that while NHS Fife and other health bodies had safeguarding roles, access to accurate and up-to-date information, resources and staff appeared to have limited their effectiveness.
“Industry, regulators, and the Scottish Government now need to rigorously apply precautionary principles ensuring greater investigation of possible pollution and harms around such plants,” he said. “Increased government funding and support are also needed for regulators and public health bodies to accomplish this.
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“In parallel, strong, and practical ‘just transition’ policies are necessary for the petrochemical and plastics industry in Scotland linked to the application of green chemistry solutions for chemical industry processes and products.”
He said many of the Mossmorran site failures should be a “wake-up call” over the poor UK control standards we have to protect public health and the environment, and we neglect what national industries do about air pollution, environmental damage and climate change “at our peril”.
“Even within the UK, Scotland has powers that can and should be sufficient taking a lead on dealing with many hazardous industries and their global threats,” Watterson told The Sunday National.
“Events surrounding decades of community concerns around the Mossmorran site reveal how difficult it is for local residents not only to be heard but for the real and valid issues they raise to be acted upon at a micro and macro level.
“As our knowledge of the physical, psychological and sometimes combined effects of industrial activity has grown, ageing chemical plants have operated processes that failed to address those concerns.
“The history of the Mossmorran and other similar sites reveal serious chemical industry deficits, environmental injustice, and significant enforcement and regulation problems … We need a review of Scotland’s chemical industries to strengthen and speed up Scottish Government policies on just transition for workers in the chemical industry.
“Green chemistry initiatives that are not viewed as marginal and can be ignored by the big chemical companies in Scotland are needed, linked to very well tried and tested toxics use reduction approaches. A recent European report has highlighted using some economic as well as public health incentives to develop alternatives to hazardous chemicals. That way we protect public health, the environment, jobs and the economy.”
Oil giant Shell retorted immediately, and a spokesperson told us: “Our plant operates under some of the highest environmental and safety regulations of any industry, overseen by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
“An independent air quality monitoring group run by Fife Council and involving the NHS has consistently reported that emissions from the plants pose no significant risk to the health of the local community.”
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Nigel Kerr, Fife Council’s head of protective services, also cited the air quality monitoring group, as well as the Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay Community and Safety Liaison Committee, which was established as a forum for local communities when the site became operational.
Ian Buchanan, From Sepa, said they had been clear that compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws was non-negotiable, and that flaring at Mossmorran “must become the exception rather than routine”.
He added: “The firm focus is on reducing instances of flaring and the impact on communities on the occasions flaring is required in the future.”
The Scottish Government said it continued to listen to the concerns of local communities about flaring incidents. A spokesperson added: “We will review the evidence contained in this report and consider whether any further actions are required as a result.”
Alba MP Neale Hanvey (below), whose Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency encompasses Mossmorran, said there was no question about the serious health impacts that unplanned flaring had on the communities surrounding it.
He said: “Whilst it is encouraging that the operators have made considerable progress with their improvement programme significantly reducing the use of the elevated flare, this report highlights areas across all agencies that need renewed focus.
“It is incumbent on the SNP/Green Scottish Government to ensure key agencies such as Sepa, NHS Fife, Fife Council and others receive ring-fenced investment to ensure they are able to fulfil their obligations, implement the recommendations of the IEPA and carry out necessary work to address the gaps in evidence highlighted in this report.”
Watterson’s report was welcomed by the Mossmorran Action Group (Mag), who told The Sunday National: “It’s great to have the experiences and views of Mossmorran residents validated by an academic expert. Mag’s impact map shows 450 reports of environmental and health impacts from the plant.
“An NHS Fife study in 2019 acknowledged ‘a considerable degree of physical and psychological disturbance caused to people in the vicinity of Mossmorran’ but there has been no follow-up work.
“Neither the operators, Sepa, the NHS or the Scottish Government have any real interest in establishing the harm the plant has done to fence line communities since it opened in 1985.”
ExxonMobil has been approached for comment.