At a packed meeting in Lochgelly on Friday, about 200 people, including disgruntled residents, community leaders and local politicians, voiced their anger at continued environmental breaches at a polluting plant that looms large over the area.
The meeting was called following the latest in a series of unplanned flaring incidents at ExxonMobil's Mossmorran ethylene plant. Local people had raised the alarm over huge plumes of black smoke, chemical-smelling fumes and a rumbling noise emanating from the site.
Although the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and the manager for Mossmorran’s sister plant (operated by Shell) attended the meeting, the event was boycotted by ExxonMobil, with plant manager Jacob McAlister saying he believed the meeting would not “provide an opportunity for fair, constructive and informed discussion.”
That decision caused considerable anger among residents, who feel the company isn’t taking their concerns seriously.
“ExxonMobil's decision not to come this evening shows the company's complete contempt for the communities who host their plant and who have been forced to endure unacceptable impacts in terms of pollution, light, noise and vibration. It is ridiculous for a company of 71,000 employees to suggest no one is available,” said James Glen, chair of the Mossmoran Action Group, which organised the meeting.
ExxonMobil defended its absence, telling DeSmog,
“While representatives of the Fife Ethylene Plant were not directly invited to the Mossmorran Action Group meeting, we did pro-actively advise the organiser that management were unavailable on the given date.”
“We absolutely understand the impact that flaring can have, and that is why we are taking the right and responsible action through a multi-million pound investment programme to further minimise that impact.”
The event was just the latest landmark in the community’s long road to get the company to engage with their concerns.
Glen said that to suggest the company “doesn’t view the meeting as an opportunity for ‘fair, constructive and informed discussion’ shows just how little respect they have for local people and their political representatives from all parties, who will be there tonight.”
“Instead ExxonMobil has offered private meetings at the plant with MAG reps. I have been to the plant twice at the operators' invitation, and it's nothing more than a propaganda tour.”
ExxonMobil point to its work on the Mossmorran Safety & Liaison Committee and the Fife Council Air Quality Monitoring Group as proof of the company’s engagement.
But Glen said the groups have been “utterly ineffectual in getting the communities' concerns addressed.”
“No one trusts them. The more ExxonMobil tries to pretend there is no issue worthy of attention at Mossmorran, the angrier people will become and the pressure for greater government investigation and regulation will become irresistible.”
“It's no wonder more and more people are calling for the plant to be shut down.”
Flaring has been an issue since the plant first started operations in 1985, but has recently increased in duration and intensity. Last month the site flared for six consecutive days provoking over 900 complaints to SEPA.
“Residents are expected to tolerate days and nights of flaring without respite,” Glen said. “There are vibrations in people’s homes and the noise levels are so high it is like being next to an airport 24/7. It is affecting the sleep of both children and adults and there are reports of children wetting the bed.”
He added: “It is causing constant low-level anxiety and stress, with people reporting chemical smells as well as saying conditions like asthma are worsening.”
One woman who has a 10 year-old son with autism said he suffered an anxiety attack including wetting the bed during the recent flaring event.
And at another public meeting a teenager told the room that the only topic of conversation between the youths during the flaring is if the plant will explode.
The political consensus that has defended the Mossmorran plant for so long appears to be breaking down.
Last week Fife councillors for the first time backed a motion seeking compensation for residents and communities affected by the flaring. They also said they would ask the Scottish Government to carry out an independent expert study of the plant’s impact, as well as debate its long-term future.
Conservative councillor Linda Holt said: “The original motion for an independent study was put forward by local Conservative councillor Darren Watt in response to a deluge of complaints and rising public anxiety about the safety of the plant.”
“You could see the recent flare from Dundee to Edinburgh and hear it across Fife, while locals reported sleeplessness, breathing difficulties and headaches, and not just children were terrified that the plant was going to blow. The council was unanimous in standing with the residents in feeling that enough was enough.”
The Scottish Greens have also called for the Mossmorran plant to be closed down. Scottish Green MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell, said:
“There’s no sign from Mossmorran’s owners that they are prepared to invest to give the plant a future, so it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will need to be shut down.”
After Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon formally declared a “climate emergency”, there are also growing calls for the site to be closed down on those terms. The plant is the second largest source of carbon dioxide in Scotland.
Ruskell has called on Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham to begin planning now for the long-term closure of the beleaguered plant. However, the Scottish Government claims it does not have the power to close the site.
Sepa and ExxonMobil have promised to address the flaring situation as a matter of urgency.
Sepa recently announced that further permit variations will be served on ExxonMobil Chemical Limited and Shell UK Limited, which shares the Mossmorran site, “to design a programme of monitoring to assess the impacts of flaring on the local community and the environment”.
“Whilst subject to a formal regulatory investigation, Sepa has a full range of enforcement powers available and will utilise these to require the impact of flaring be reduced,” the agency said.
“The unprecedented number of complaints we received is a clear message that the impacts on people’s lives is a major concern. Sepa has heard this message powerfully and clearly.”
And a spokesperson for the ExxonMobil Fife Ethylene Plant said it had plans for a “multi-million-pound investment programme that will work to further minimise the frequency and impact of unplanned flaring”.
But from the comments in the packed space of that Lochgelly meeting room, it is clear local residents remain sceptical.
Image: Richard Webb CC BY-SA 2.0