A pledge by Mossmorran operators to reduce unplanned flaring within five years has been branded unacceptable by Scotland’s environmental watchdog.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has ordered improvements must be made sooner and said it would move within seven days to vary the operating permits given to both ExxonMobil and Shell.
The regulator said compliance with environmental rules was “simply non-negotiable”.
ExxonMobil has admitted “low reliability” in the ground flares it uses, which means excess gas is instead diverted to its towers.
This has led to increases in noise and light pollution from the petrochemicals plant near Cowdenbeath, and years of complaints from local residents who said excessive noise left them unable to sleep.
The company had said it hoped to eradicate the problem by 2024
The outcome of Sepa’s review into Best Available Techniques (BAT) assessments by Exxon and Shell follows the closure of the plant on Thursday for a month after another bout of unplanned flaring.
ExxonMobil has apologised for the latest incident, which will be fully investigated by Sepa.
The ground flares used by Exxon are owned, maintained and operated by Shell.
Chris Dailly, Sepa’s head of environmental performance, said: “Sepa has repeatedly said that compliance with Scotland’s environmental rules is simply non-negotiable.
“Communities across Fife have had to endure repeated preventable and unacceptable flaring.
“We’ve heard clearly the frustration of local people and are today reaching another key milestone in our regulatory response which will drive necessary action to upgrade the site and limit its impact on local communities.”
A monitoring report, published by Sepa, indicates the latest flaring has had no impact on air quality.
Jacob McAlister, Fife Ethylene Plant manager, said: “We are taking the right and responsible action to minimise frequency and public concerns relating to flaring, and the Best Available Techniques Programme provides a clear pathway to achieve this.
“We are committed to delivering this extensive, multi-million pound programme.
“In fact, we have already progressed a number of these commitments.”
Teresa Waddington, Shell Fife NGL plant manager, confirmed she had received Sepa’s letter.
“We will continue our dialogue with the regulator to ensure we are operating our plant within the required regulations to supply energy products to Scotland and the UK with minimum impact on the local community,” she said.
James Glen, of Mossmorran Action Group, said: “Sepa’s findings are welcome but will not come as news to local communities who are well aware that the plant is not up to scratch.
“For years now, ExxonMobil has been offering false reassurances and meaningless apologies while insisting the impacts residents have been forced to endure were negligible and unavoidable.
“Why has it taken Sepa so long to realise the situation is unacceptable?”
Sepa issued ExxonMobil and Shell with final warning letters in April after an increase in flaring over the last two years.
Flaring involves burning off gas that cannot be processed because of a technical fault.