Mossmorran: £140m refurbishment underway at petro-chemical plant

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A £140m refurbishment of Mossmorran is underway - and it could lead to the contentious issue of elevated flaring finally being resolved.

Fife Ethylene Plant has found itself at odds with campaign groups and politicians after a series of unscheduled flares sparked a huge community backlash.

By the end of next year, a new ground flare will be installed, and come close to eliminating the noise and vibration which accompany the sight of Fife’s night skies turning bright orange.

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Martin Burrell, who took over as plant manager in November at the starta of this third assignment at Mossmorran has overseen the safe shut down of the plant to allow work to start on a major programme of maintenance and replacement, while the flare tip is designed and built in Italy before being shipped across to Fife.

Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)
Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)

It’s a major operation conducted against a backdrop of COVID regulations, but one which he says will address the issues associated with the plant.

Mossmorran is no stranger to tough headlines and criticism - its very creation in 1985 sparked significant opposition - but it has become synonymous with nothing other than flaring.

Mr Burrell - who started his career there after graduating from Heriot Watt University - admitted: “It is disappointing that is what we are seen for - but I understand that.

“The flare has operated more than we would have liked.

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Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil  Hanna)Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil  Hanna)
Fife Ethylene Plant, Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)

“But, when you see the flare, it is doing what it is designed for.”

He sees improved reliability as one main benefit from the investment which will see equipment stripped down, checked and upgraded while work on the new ground flare continues on the continent.

The numbers behind the work are big - 1000 workers, 300,000 man hours, 48,000 new parts, and 21,000 individual work tasks.

“We can’t just flick a switch and turn off the plant,” he said. “Only when it is cold do you start to open up equipment- huge cranes are on site lifting out two large turbines, we’re starting to replace components of the compressor with new rotors, and new control systems are being installed.

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Martin Burrell, plant manager at Exxonmobil - Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)Martin Burrell, plant manager at Exxonmobil - Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)
Martin Burrell, plant manager at Exxonmobil - Mossmorran (Pic: Neil Hanna)

“We know when we shut down a plant, we will find a few surprises - some items may need more attention than others.

“But, we have been here 35 years with a very safe record.”

The desire to be a good neighbour is also on the agenda, with the plant owners pointing to the role it plays in Fife’s economy amid calls from critics for it to be de-commissioned.

It supports a supply chain of more than 120 companies, and the current project takes in some 40 suppliers and contract companies.

Salaries are 2.3 times the Fife average, its female workforce has increased by over 70% in the last decade, and 60% of all staff live within 10miles of the plant.

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Getting that bigger picture across remains a challenge for the plant, with another protest staged in Cowdenbeath this week after a number of demos at the gates of the plant earlier in the pandemic.

Last July, a five-day summer climate camp was scheduled to take place as close to Mossmorran as possible.

It also faces political pressure which could lead to its de-commissioning process.

Mr Burrell said: “Twenty years ago there was a much healthier, balanced relationship with some community members.

“I very much want to get back to that again.

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“We are trying to ensure we engage with the right people across the communities. We want to build relationships with politicians, and answer their questions on what they see.

“Some groups have their own agendas and it is difficult to change their minds, but that does not stop us from putting out the facts.”

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