Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to consider an independent inquiry into the future of the Mossmorran chemical plant in Fife following more than 5,000 complaints to Scotland’s environment secretary.
An investigation has been launched after the latest flaring incident at the petrochemical complex, in the early hours of Sunday morning, saw horrified homeowners wake up to the sound of loud rumbling and flames filling the sky.
Operator ExxonMobil has apologised and blamed the disturbance on an isolated trip in a machine. A probe by watchdog Sepa confirmed there was a community noise impact but said there had been no breach of air quality standards.
Sepa also submitted a report to the Crown Office earlier this year seeking a prosecution over prolonged flaring in April 2019. The agency received more than 900 complaints – the most ever taken by its pollution hotline – in relation to the episode.
Ms Sturgeon was challenged on the issue during first minister’s questions on Thursday as it was revealed the number of people writing to environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham calling for an independent probe had reached 5,565.
The Scottish Greens, who filed the letters through their website, have repeatedly called for action and said thousands of locals have now requested an inquiry.
The party’s environment spokesman, Mark Ruskell, insisted communities could wait no longer for investigations to take place and asked the first minister what message she had for furious residents.
Ms Sturgeon said she could “absolutely understand their views of frustration and anger” and her government is willing to look at all options, including holding an independent inquiry into the plant’s future.
“I will as a result of (Mark Ruskell’s) question have a further discussion with Roseanna Cunningham about the call for an inquiry, and about any further action we can take, or support and encourage Sepa to take,” she said.
“It’s not any help to people who are living with this, I understand that, for me to say I understand what they’re saying. But there are processes, legal processes, that we cannot simply cast aside, both from Sepa and from the Crown Office.”
‘Blatant disregard by operator’
But the SNP leader was also challenged from within her own party, with Cowdenbeath MSP Annabelle Ewing saying the flaring had resulted in “over 56 hours of hell for my constituents, who are not just fed-up and worried but are increasingly very angry”.
She said: “For the future, a just transition for Mossmoran will be essential, but dealing with the here and now, can I urge the first minister to have the Scottish Government consider all available options to bring such blatant disregard by the operator for interests of the local community to an end?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “I completely understand the community concerns in relation to this issue and I understand the frustration and the anger that people in the local community will feel – and I can hear it expressed on their behalf by Annabelle Ewing.
“It is entirely understandable and, in my view, it is entirely legitimate.
“Sepa is currently looking at the cause of the flaring and how it was managed over the full duration of the incident. The concerns locally are clear and well understood both by government and regulators.
“And of course the Crown Office is currently considering a report submitted by Sepa into a previous incident of flaring.
“I won’t say any more about that for obvious reasons but I hope it is an indication of the seriousness with which Sepa is treating flaring incidents at the plant.”
Fife Ethylene Plant manager Jacob McAlister said on Wednesday that engineers were working to replace a faulty part in the plant’s compressor so operations could re-start, and would continue working to minimise flaring “wherever possible” in the meantime.
He said: “We understand that our elevated flare can cause frustration but it ensures we maintain safe operations and is not something we would ever use without good reason.”