Released more than 20 tons of metal-laden dust on Thanksgiving, CC Health not notified, no public warning issued
On Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2022, Contra Costa Health (CCH) formally requested that the District Attorney consider taking legal action against the Martinez Refining Company (MRC) for not notifying the County after the refinery released more than 20 tons of metal-laden dust into the community over the Thanksgiving holiday.
The accidental release of “spent catalyst” from the refinery during multiple flarings, began around 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving Day) and continued into the early hours of Nov. 25, showering the surrounding community in the dust-like substance. Samples of the dust taken later showed it had elevated levels of aluminum and other metals, which could have potentially caused respiratory symptoms in people who breathed it. Prolonged exposure to these metals can lead to health concerns.
MRC did not report the release via the county’s Community Warning System or directly to CCH, as required by the county’s notification policy. CCH learned about the release from media accounts two days after it began. Had MRC followed the notification policy, the Community Warning System would have been activated to notify the community about the hazard at the time of the accident.
“It is unacceptable that the refinery did not notify County Health Services of their chemical release and that the County learned about it through the media,” said John Gioia, Chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. “By failing to notify the County in a timely manner, the refinery delayed an emergency response that could have reduced harm to the surrounding community.”
“We rely on our industrial businesses to follow the rules and be good neighbors – and most of the time, they are. But when an industrial facility doesn’t follow the rules and possibly puts its neighbors in harm’s way, as in this case, then they must be held accountable,” said Supervisor Federal Glover, whose district includes the Martinez refinery.
The District Attorney’s Office has approximately 30 days to decide whether to accept the enforcement case referral from CCH.
In a separate but related move, CCH is also recommending an independent investigation and risk assessment be done of the accidental release of spent catalyst from the refinery. The Contra Costa Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) Ad Hoc Committee, which is appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, will consider that recommendation at its Jan. 12 meeting at 1 p.m., which is open to the public.
A Nov. 30th post on MRC’s Facebook page reads, “On November 30, 2022, Contra Costa County Health Services held a news briefing regarding the Martinez Refining Company spent catalyst release that occurred overnight last Thursday, November 24th. You can watch a video of the County’s briefing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PovDvIq7IQ
This incident is still under internal and external investigations, and we appreciate the cooperation and responses of the Contra Costa County Health Services and Bay Area Air Quality Management District. MRC will continue working with the agencies on this matter. Again, we apologize for the inconvenience this incident has posed to our neighbors and community.”
In that video, Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Ori Tzveli said, “Contra Costa Health does not believe that there is an immediate risk to the community from this event. Breathing the air containing this material could have caused temporary respiratory symptoms…during the incident. Anyone who experienced those or are continuing to experience those should contact their healthcare provider. Exposure during a single event like this would be unlikely to cause any major health problems.”
“We will be working with the facility to make sure exposures like this don’t happen again,” he added.
MRC is owned by New Jersey-based PBF Energy. According to the parent company’s website, it “is one of the largest independent petroleum refiners and suppliers of unbranded transportation fuels, heating oil, petrochemical feedstocks, lubricants and other petroleum products in the United States.”
Asked for comment about CCH’s request, MRC’s Community Relations Advisor, David Schoenthal responded, “While this incident is still under internal and external investigation, MRC will continue cooperating with all agencies.”
Allen D. Payton contributed to this report.