The Mossmorran ethylene plant, operated by Exxon-Mobil and Shell, has been dogged by controversy and safety fears for years. Now an investigation has been launched into two explosions at the plant, further eroding trust between the operating companies and the local community.
The plant has been “temporarily closed” since 12 August 2019 over safety fears. ExxonMobil extended the closure in September, saying it will remain closed until at least November while it implements £140 million of measures to make it more “reliable”.
At the time of the shutdown, ExxonMobil said that two of the plant’s three boilers had failed. Now it has been revealed that there were two explosions, which are being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and were not disclosed by the company at the time.
Linda Holt, a spokesperson for local campaigners the Mossmorran Action Group, told DeSmog she was “shocked” to hear about the explosions. She said:
“HSE described the breakdowns as ‘catastrophic’, and they are currently the subject of a live investigation. We were also told that neither HSE nor Exxon have so far identified the cause. Rumours have been circulating locally that the boilers exploded, and HSE’s confirmation makes a mockery of ExxonMobil’s communication strategy.”
“For years local communities have lived with the fear of an accident at the plant; trying to hide explosions behind an announcement of a £140 million investment will only exacerbate local mistrust and fear.”
Many local residents have also complained of adverse health effects from the environmental impact of the plant.
An HSE spokesperson confirmed an investigation into two explosions at the plant was ongoing.
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In August 2019, Shell and ExxonMobil were given two months by the environmental regulator to come up with a plan to fix the problem of flaring, where excess gas is burned on an open flame.
This followed the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) issuing final warning letters to both operators about flaring in 2018, which the regulator said was “preventable and unacceptable”.
The BBC reports that the key points in the Sepa August action plan included:
- Requiring both operators to achieve “best available techniques” at the Fife petrochemical complex;
- That flaring will be the “exception rather than routine” with new infrastructure to address unacceptable impacts of flaring events on local communities;
- That noise reducing flare tips be installed in 2020 and 2021;
- That ExxonMobil had two months to come forward with the “shortest period possible to plan, design, build and safely integrate” new ground flare technology.
At the time the HSE said ExxonMobil had failed to take all measures necessary to reduce the risk of “firebox explosion from furnaces”. The firebox is an area in the plant’s furnaces where fuel is burnt.
Stuart Neill, external affairs manager for ExxonMobil, said: “We are concerned that comments have been made publicly on an ongoing regulatory investigation.”
“It would be inappropriate for ExxonMobil to comment until the HSE‘s investigation, and our own, have been completed.”
Main image credit: Alexnoel66/Wikimedia, CC-by-3.0