Just Transition only can solve Mossmorran’s pollution and preserve jobs

Mossmorran: unscheduled flaring in 2017 caused glasses to vibrate in cupboards more than ten miles away, and children awoke to a night sky full of flames

by Councillor Mary Lockhart

· On 5 October 2020, pilots of aircraft approaching Edinburgh Airport radioed Air Traffic Control to ask if it was safe to land. Their flight decks appeared to be full of flickering, flaming orange light from a massive conflagration just north of Edinburgh, and visible from as far south as the Lake District.

They were assured that it was indeed safe to land, and that whatever was happening was nowhere near the airport. On landing, one of the pilots asked a member of ground crew if there had been a major incident, perhaps an explosion, on the other side of the river Forth, and were the people safe. The worker laughed.

“No, no, pal….that’s Exxon flaring at Mossmorran. It happens all the time. Sometimes you just see one big flame, but sometimes if its really bad, like tonight, the whole sky lights up. One of my mates lives over there. They call it Mordor!”

Mossmorran is the local name for the Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) plant located just south of Cowdenbeath, and just west of Lochgelly. It is made up of two plants: the Fife NGL Plant operated by Shell, and the Fife Ethylene Plant operated by ExxonMobil.

It was opened in 1985 after a lengthy dispute as to whether it was wise to site such a facility in a populated area, given that from the outset it was known that flaring off excess gas would be an essential part of its safety processes.

However, with Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in Government, and hundreds of miners either out of work, or facing an uncertain future, the promise of long term, well paid, highly skilled engineering jobs, and hundreds of related spin off jobs in manufacturing and services proved irresistible.

Besides which, the proposal at the time was that the plant would last for 20 years, with one possible extension, but not more.

However, there were still concerns. 1988, Cowdenbeath Labour Party was raising concerns about a report from local GP’s concerning a high incidence of complaints from patients living at the top end of Lochgelly of hayfever like symptoms, including sore throats, stinging eyes, and headaches.

In the late 1990’s, local MP Gordon Brown, was asking for an inquiry into heath impacts of Benzine release.

By 2005, it was plain that Mossmorran was likely to be with us for as long as there was gas from the North Sea.

People were talking about cancer clusters, but being told Bottom of Form that these were caused by the high levels of poverty, obesity and smoking in working class communities. It was also clear that the promise of thousands of jobs had never materialised.

In 2012, ExxonMobil was fined £2.8 million by the Scottish environmental regulator after failing to declare over 30,000 tonnes of emissions from its chemical plant in Fife.

Unscheduled flaring
As the Plants have aged, the incidence of unscheduled flaring has increased, as have the levels of emissions, the noise and light pollution, the vibrations, and the number of complaints to SEPA.

In 2017 prolonged unscheduled flaring in June caused glasses to vibrate in cupboards more than ten miles distant, children awoke screaming as it appeared that their bedrooms were engulfed by flames and they thought their homes were on fire…they had seen footage of Grenfell Tower.

Parents reported bedwetting where there had been none previous, there were smuts on cars and on washing, and the noise was like aircraft taking off from back gardens.

SEPA conducted an investigation, which reported on 19 April 2018, and issued a Final Warning….to which was added the rider that “unplanned flaring events which took place in October 2017 and March 2018 are still under investigation.”

During this time, feelings in communities affected by the plant were running high.

The long established Mossmorran Action Group held Public Meetings at Lochgelly Town Hall, and the meetings were packed, often with people who had never before taken part in any kind of political activity.

Politicians of all parties, Councillors, MPs, and the then local Local Labour MP, Lesley Laird attended and heard people describe the impact of Mossmorran on their lives.

In May, 2019, following a motion passed at full Council, Fife Council wrote to the Scottish Government asking it to commission an independent inquiry into the health and social impacts of Mossmorran.

The motion had been passed with some difficulty, because the SNP, with which Labour is in a co-leadership agreement, had submitted an amendment which would have left the responsibility for any inquiry with Fife, not the Scottish Government.

It was therefore not surprising when the Scottish Government declined to act, and gave as its reason the existing and ongoing SEPA Inquiry.

In May 2020, SEPA referred Exxon Mobil to the Crown office Prosecution Service for events surrounding the unscheduled flaring of the year before.

Since then , despite Exxon Mobil having agreed to SEPA’s insistence that it replace the flaretips on its elevated flares to reduce noise, and install a further ground flare facility to reduce the impact of the flames, it has done neither, seeking and being granted extensions to the time permitted to do so citing the Covid 19 pandemic. Ground flaring appears to be constant.

Which brings us back to Mordor and the eye of Sauron which so alarmed air traffic last month, and which led me to post that I intended to protest outside the gates of Mosssmorran, and would welcome any who wished to join me, and to the weekly protests which have followed, and to the motion passed by Fife Council last week, again calling on the Scottish Government to commission an independent inquiry into the social and health impacts, but also to establish a Just Transition Board, “to examine all options for the short, medium and long term future of the plants, including decommissioning”. And the motion undertook that if the Scottish Government again declined, Fife Council would set up a Just Transition board itself.

I grew up in this part of Fife. I am part of the family of coalfield communities whose pride and dignity was rooted in coalmining and the labour they contributed.

That was snatched from us without replacement or compensation by a Tory Government determined to annihilate the working class. To me, as carbon is replaced as the fuel which powers our industry and our homes, it is vital that this time our livelihoods, or skills, our pride and dignity will never again be severed.

We need a just transition, and we need to prepare for it now.

As soon as the motion was passed, Neal Hanvey MP issued a statement saying he opposes closure or decommissioning, arguing for the continued operation of the plants with further investment from the operators in improvements, and concluding,

“But let me be clear, that further action should not be naked politicking from opposition parties who seem happy to discard high-value local jobs, and vital income to the council, by pushing for decommissioning that would throw away the opportunity”.

And apparently, the Scottish Government takes the view that it cannot set up an inquiry or a Just Transition Board for Mossmorran while SEPA awaits the COPS decision on prosecution of Exxon. This is an appalling abrogation of duty and responsibility, and is prevarication indeed.

The purpose of Just Transition Board is to look into the options whereby carbon dependent industries and the well paid, highly skilled jobs they provide are replaced seamlessly by sustainable industries on a job for job, pound for pound, skill for skill basis, enriching communities and protecting the environment.

Any case which may be pursued by the Crown against the operators of Mossmorran is to do with possible offences committed in the past by current operators, and has nothing to do with the remit of any Just Transition Board.

The Scottish Government is doing all it can to keep Shell and Exxon in Fife. In an area whose environment has been disregarded and plundered for carbon for centuries.

And without regard or respect for the future jobs, health and wellbeing of the citizens and communities of the people who elected them.

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