“Apocalyptic” flaring at a Fife petrochemical plant on Thursday was due to a problem with a process unit and reduced capacity of ground flares, it has emerged.
Scores of complaints were received about the intense bright light caused by a massive flare at the Mossmorran petrochemical complex near Cowdenbeath, which could be seen from up to 70 miles away.
People living near the site said they were “worried sick” and claimed they had been “utterly abandoned” by Scottish ministers who had refused to come to the area to listen to residents’ concerns.
ExxonMobil has apologised and said the flaring was part of the operation to restart the plant, which has been closed since August due to failed boilers.
The restart is now likely to continue into the weekend.
Video of the flaring is above this article
Environment watchdog Sepa has now revealed the four hours of flaring was unplanned and unexpected and has acknowledged the high level of community anxiety it caused.
Head of environmental performance Chris Dailly said: “Thursday’s unplanned flaring during ExxonMobil Chemical’s restart at Mossmorran is a real reminder of why short and medium term solutions are critical to addressing the root causes of unacceptable flaring.
“While elevated flaring is a possibility during restart it was not expected last night.”
He said that while initial data suggested there had been no breach of air quality standards, noise and air monitoring would continue across local communities.
“We accept that flaring is causing people worry, anxiety and stress,” Mr Dailly said.
“The short and medium-term investment we’re requiring the operators to make, from noise-reducing flare tips in 2020 and 2021 and planning, designing then delivering new ground flare capacity will make a real difference to local communities.”
“We appreciate communities want action, not words, which is why we’re focused on rapid conclusion of regulatory investigation to an evidential standard and to next steps in driving systemic change at Mossmoran.”
James Glen, chairman of the Mossmorran Action Group said the flaring had been apolocalyptic and branded it unacceptable.
“Residents feel utterly abandoned by the Scottish Government and (environmental watchdog) Sepa, who are letting multinational Exxon get away with murder,” he said.
“Our Facebook page and Twitter feeds have blown up. People are petrified.
“They can’t breathe properly, they are worried sick about the pollution spewing from the plant and have been left completely in the dark about what is going on.”
He added: “Ministers are in hiding and have consistently refused to come to the area to hear from local communities while ministers hobnob with Exxon and applaud the investment in the plant, investment that became inevitable after the maintenance of the plant was so neglected…the ethylene plant was forced to shut down for six months.”
ExxonMobil dismissed Mr Glen’s comments as baseless, claiming they were designed to scare people, and insisted the use of the flare had been safe.
External affairs manager Stuart Neill said: “We recognise that the surrounding steam and light causes a dramatic visual effect but the use of the flare was completely safe and controlled at all times.
“The elevated flaring was addressed within four hours and we are committed to safely completing the restart as soon as practicable, while avoiding flaring wherever possible.
“We appreciate that people want us to complete our work quickly.
“We look forward to normal operations being restored but we hope that people understand that we cannot compromise safety as we complete the restart.”
The Scottish Government was asked for comment.