FAWLEY refinery has been given planning permission to replace a 73m flare stack with one that will pump less smoke into the atmosphere.

New Forest District Council has approved an application to install a new stack at the huge petro-chemical complex after acknowledging the environmental benefits of the scheme.

Fawley's four flack stacks enable the site to burn off excess gas and have been dubbed the refinery's safety valve.

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Proposals to upgrade part of the system were submitted by Esso earlier this year.

The planning application said: "The proposed installation of the replacement Flare 4 is part of the refinery's ongoing commitment to safety and environment.

"The flare to be replaced is no longer viable for repair. The proposed replacement will be located on the same block and will be of similar design."

A report to district councillors added: "The existing flare dates back to the 1960s. Its proposed replacement represents the opportunity to introduce improved technology that would reduce the amount of smoke emissions."

The new flare, like its predecessor, will be located in an area known as Block 19.

The report said: "The replacement would be visible from the surrounding area, as indeed is the existing. It would be viewed as part of a group of other tall structures within the refinery complex, appearing satisfactory in its context.

"No objections have been received and Fawley Parish Council has recommended that permission be granted."

A statement on the refinery's website says: "The flare is a normal and vital part of keeping the plant running safely during unplanned operational interruptions or scheduled maintenance.

"During normal operations crude oil is refined to produce a variety of products.

"During an interruption, such as an unplanned loss of power, the system is occasionally unable to continue its processing and excess hydrocarbons are routed through the flare system.

"There the vapours are combined with steam and burned off, ensuring maximum combustion of hydrocarbons while minimising emissions into the air."

But the use of the refinery's flaring system, especially at night, can cause widespread alarm among people living on both sides of Southampton Water.

In 2013 Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service was contacted by people who feared the 2,500-acre refinery was on fire.

A similar incident occurred four months ago.

The emergency services received hundreds of calls about an ominous orange glow that could be seen in the skies above Southampton and the New Forest.