Aging Plants Come Under Scrutiny

19.07.2017 -

Aging oil and petrochemical facilities are coming under increased public and regulatory scrutiny in the wake of recent incidents or suspected environmental violations.

In Scotland, multinational oil and petrochemical companies ExxonMobil and Shell are facing community demands for an independent inquiry into the safety of aging plants at their Mossmorran petrochemical complex after nine days of unplanned gas flaring last month.

While citizens groups and some local authorities suggest the flaring may have exceeded pollution limits and affected the health of nearby residents, the companies have insisted that emissions are within allowed limits.

ExxonMobil operates a plant at Mossmorran converting ethane to ethylene as a starting material for polyethylene. Shell’s adjacent facility separates ethane from other gases piped in from the North Sea.

According to Scottish media reports, the two companies are being accused of “showing contempt for the community” by failing to turn up for a public meeting earlier this month. At the same time, public agencies are being criticized for failing to do enough to protect communities from pollution, noise and vibrations.

Latest official figures cited by the Glasgow-based newspaper Sunday Herald show that in 2015 alone the Mosmorran site flared 13,507 t of gas as well as releasing 23 t of benzene. Equipment failures at both the ExxonMobil and Shell plants, including a pump breakdown and an unspecified “process upset” caused a large amount of out-of-turn flaring in mid-June of this year, the Scottish Environment Agency Sepa said.

Sepa has launched an official investigation into the flaring and said it planned to conduct interviews with company staff. An area manager said the environment agency “will be looking at the permit conditions that apply to these operators with a view to taking action.” This could include “formal warnings or undertakings, enforcement notices, fines or prosecutions.”

While the agency said it has received more than 80 complaints about the flaring, it declined to say whether anti-pollution laws were violated. However, it said it was “currently satisfied that the emissions from the Mossmorran complex are not having a detrimental impact on air quality in the local communities.”

By contrast, the local National Health Service (NHS) arm said it was taking the matter “very seriously” and planned to look into potential emissions rules violations that could endanger public health. 

ExxonMobil insisted that the incidents posed no danger to staff or local communities and,  moreover, independent monitoring had shown that emissions from Mossmorran “have no significant impact on air quality in the local communities and meet national and EU air quality objectives.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, ExxonMobil has been issued nine citations and fined about $165,000 by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in connection with safety lapses that the agency said included inadequate training and equipment maintenance at an aging refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

Eight of the nine citations were listed as serious, each carrying a fine of $12,675. The ninth, for failing to carry out external visual and ultrasonic inspections of piping, totaled $63,373 as a problem identified earlier had not been corrected.

The safety board’s action, which the company is contesting, follows a November 2016 explosion in in a sulfuric-acid alkylation unit at the Baton Rouge complex making octane-boosting gasoline components. A separate investigation by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is said to be in progress, with a report expected by year’s end.

An inspection of the refinery by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 reportedly found a number of violations including corroded pipes that it said had not been examined in five years, along with inadequate emergency and shutdown procedures. The company contested these violations, and the EPA withdrew all but two of its findings, an ExxonMobil spokesperson told the news agency Reuters.