Campaigners concerned about pollution from a Fife petrochemical plant fear operators are being given a free pass after watchdogs cut back on monitoring.
Members of Mossmorran Action Group (MAG) said it was unacceptable that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) had scrapped its compliance assessment scheme for 2020 and were trusting companies to do the right thing.
MAG chairman James Glen said ExxonMobil and Shell, which operate the plant near Cowdenbeath, had among the worst track records in Scotland for pollution and complying with environmental regulations.
He claimed communities would be outraged that the watchdog was “using the excuse of a pandemic” to let Mossmorran operators “off the hook” this year.
Sepa said the new position was a direct result of the covid-19 crisis.
It confirmed air quality monitoring at Mossmorran would continue as normal despite the suspension of the compliance assessment scheme, and said its response to businesses deliberately doing the wrong thing would be “uncompromising”.
Mr Glen said there was no reason why Sepa could not carry on monitoring businesses which were still operating.
“It is completely unacceptable that Sepa is giving some of Scotland’s worst polluters a free pass,” he said.
“In place of active monitoring by Sepa, the companies are being asked to increase their self-reporting.
“In 2018 Shell was fined for under-reporting propane volumes over a three-year period, while in 2012 ExxonMobil was given a record £2.8 million fine for not reporting 33,000 tonnes of CO2.
“Both companies have broken the rules time and time again and Exxon remains under major investigation for multiple licence breaches in the last year.
“Local communities do not trust these multi-nationals and have found it hard to keep faith with Sepa.
“They will be outraged that Sepa is now using the excuse of a pandemic to tell the Mossmorran operators they are off the hook for the next year.”
Sepa chief executive Terry A’Hearn confirmed the compliance assessment scheme had ceased for 2020 and added: “This suspension is intended to recognise the practicalities of the current circumstances and that Sepa will not be in a position to carry out the systematic compliance work required by the scheme this year.
“However, Sepa will use a variety of means to continue to check and assess compliance over 2020.”
Assessments will be done through phone calls, issuing written advice, targeted site visits and via technology such as drones.
“Monitoring of air quality at Mossmorran is continuing as normal and we will continue to publish reports on our Mossmorran Hub at sepa.org.uk/Mossmorran on a fortnightly basis,” Mr A’ Hearn said.
“Our message is clear: if you try to do the right thing in this next period, you will find a helpful and supportive regulator.
“If you deliberately do the wrong thing, you’ll get the uncompromising regulator your behaviour deserves.”
‘Robust and transparent’
Mossmorran operators have insisted they are committed to meeting stringent safety standards while directly contributing to the national effort against coronavirus.
In a strongly worded response, ExxonMobil said “robust and transparent” monitoring was continuing at the plant, which remains open and is regarded as critical for UK infrastructure.
Shell said it was striving to meet high environmental regulatory standards.
Products from the two plants at Mossmorran produce fuel and a range of household products, including plastics, detergents and pharmaceuticals.
An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: “The Mossmorran facility is integral to Scotland’s vital energy supply to homes, hospitals, care homes and businesses nationwide, and its teams continue to play a part every day in this supply chain.
“Furthermore, the Fife Ethylene plant is directly supporting the manufacturing supply chain for critical medical supplies and food packaging while remaining rigorously committed to meeting stringent safety and environmental standards.
“This commitment is in no way compromised by Sepa’s temporary revision to some procedures within its regulatory regime.
“Robust and transparent monitoring programmes continue unchanged.”
He added: ” At a time of genuine and unprecedented concern for everyone, we are seeing business, the public, Government and regulators working for the common good of communities all over the country.
“It is, therefore, disappointing to see an environmental activist promoting his own narrow agenda over the extraordinary and pressing needs of the current time.”
A Shell spokesperson said the company remained in regular contact with Sepa regarding ongoing checks and assessment, despite the suspension of the compliance assessment scheme.
“We always strive to meet high environmental regulatory standards and monitor our emissions in line with our pollution prevention and control permit.”