These reports reveal a corporate culture where health and safety compliance sits at a bare minimum and where actions demanded by the regulator are allowed to drift from year to year.
Heavily redacted reports recently released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed a catalogue of safety concerns at the Fife Ethylene Plant at Mossmorran and its neighbouring Braefoot Bay terminal.
As DeSmog UK reported back in April, after years of complaints and locals suffering the ill-effects of flaring from the Fife Ethylene Plant run by ExxonMobil and Shell at Cowdenbeath, residents celebrated the 'final warnings' given by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
But the ruling raised deeper questions of regulatory failure and corporate power in a small community.
Now the documents, released under a Freedom of Information request made by Green MSP Mark Ruskell, reveal ongoing concerns about the safety management system at the plant, and a series of incidents over the last three years including:
- A gas leak from a compressor which was allowed to continue for several years;
- Damage to fire proof coatings which were deemed ‘not safety critical’ and not repairs;
- Ongoing water leaks at Braefoot Bay which could be causing the pier to corrode.
Failed seals on two gas tanks, with the operators deciding to run on back-up seals and push back repairs for another two years.
The reports also reveals that the plant often relies on manual intervention by staff to deal with a major hazard incident, rather than having automatic trips or shutdowns in place, and that the HSE has major concerns about staffing levels, which have been reduced in recent years.
The plant and the neighbouring terminal are jointly operated by Shell and Exxonmobil, and have been in operation since 1985. An increase in flaring incidents in recent years has raised concerns in the local community that the aging plant is not being maintained properly.
Mark Ruskell MSP stated: “These reports reveal a corporate culture where health and safety compliance sits at a bare minimum and where actions demanded by the regulator are allowed to drift from year to year.
"It’s clear that the operators have, like the plant itself, failed to move with the times with an under-investment in corroding infrastructure, safety systems and specialist staff.”
“Mossmorran and Braefoot are major employers in Fife, the operators have a responsibility to stop the corner cutting and get the plants operating at a higher standard. I expect the joint investigation launched by SEPA and HSE last month to thoroughly consider these ongoing concerns, alongside community issues like flaring.”
A spokesperson for Shell told DeSmog UK: “Earlier this year, Shell identified an issue with a historical emissions reporting calculation, corrected the calculation and immediately disclosed updated data to SEPA to rectify the error.
"We very much regret this situation. Shell prioritises the safety of our staff, community and care for the environment. The inadvertent reporting error had no impact on actual levels of carbon dioxide emitted by the plant.”
As Rob Edwards at The Ferret reports: “The sites are regularly inspected by HSE as 'major accident hazards' because of risks that gases could leak, catch fire and explode. According to the HSE, ExxonMobil has identified 38 major accident hazards at Mossmorran and 14 at Braefoot Bay.”
Fear and stress
“HSE has released 17 files amounting to nearly 200 pages on its inspections of Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay in 2015, 2016 and 2017. They listed 23 'issues' at Shell plants, one of which was said not to have been completed, and 10 issues at ExxonMobil facilities, four of which were described as 'ongoing'.
“HSE has withheld files on the uncompleted problems, but has provided detailed information on some of those that have been resolved. HSE was particularly worried in July 2016 about Shell’s failure over 'a number of years' to repair flawed seals on a gas compressor that could have resulted in leaks.”
But while regulatory bodies seem to be engaged in endless prevarication, local residents are both angry and upset.
Local resident James Glen is unimpressed by how little communities are being told about the issues at the plant. He told DeSmog UK:
“Easy apologies from ExxonMobil bring no comfort to residents suffering the fear and stress created by yet another emergency flaring period when the operators are under a final warning and are still under investigation for two other emergencies in the last year.”
“As usual, no one appears to know how long the flaring will last, and the operators and regulators are tightlipped about the causes and extent of the emergency.”
“After SEPA blamed a previous recent emergency flaring on negligence by ExxonMobil, we want to know the full extent of the current ‘equipment failure’, what exactly was leaked, how the spillage is being treated and what risks it has presented to emergency workers and local residents.”
“Seven appliances at such an emergency may be protocol, but as these emergencies are increasing, questions should also be asked about the cost, to both the public purse and the ability of the Fire Service to respond to concurrent local incidents.”
This ongoing crisis points to a lack of transparency, accountability and regulatory control. As one resident told DeSmog UK:
“There’s a growing fear that nothing will happen until there’s a terrible accident.”
Reacting to a community notice acknowledging the fine, seen by DeSmog UK, a spokesperson for the Mossmoran Action Group said the fine “illustrates the pitfalls of relying on self-reporting by Shell and ExxonMobil to monitor and regulate pollution from Mossmorran.”
They added that the letter being sent to residents now “begs the question why communities weren’t told about this omission when Shell discovered it last year.
"As ever, Shell’s PR machine is seeking to control the narrative, since the fact of a £40,000 fine means the story can no longer be kept from public view”.
“How many other things have the operators failed to report? After all, the plant is aging and becoming ever more prone to breakdown, so that emergency flaring is now a regular occurrence.”
“Community trust in what Shell and ExonnMobil say is zero.”
This article first appeared at Desmog.uk.