Contra Costa Health Recommends an Independent Investigation of Martinez Refinery Release
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Contra Costa Health (CCH) will recommend to the Contra Costa Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) Ad Hoc Committee, which is appointed by the County Board of Supervisors, that the county lead an independent, community-involved investigation into a November hazardous materials release at Martinez Refining Company (MRC) that blanketed the surrounding community in metal-laden dust.
CCH today notified MRC that, based on its initial investigation, it has determined the Nov. 24-25 incident was a Major Chemical Accident or Release (MCAR), a legal designation that allows CCH to thoroughly investigate the cause of the incident through an independent investigation, perform follow-up work to fill safety gaps, and publicly report its activities through a transparent process.
In a Dec. 14 letter to MRC, CCH also noted the refinery violated state law and local policy when it failed to report the airborne release of more than 20 tons of "spent catalyst," a substance that laboratory testing later showed to contain elevated levels of heavy metals.
CCH is investigating the incident for potential enforcement action, including a case referral to the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office.
"Contra Costa County will not sweep this incident under the rug," said Contra Costa Supervisor Federal Glover, whose district includes Martinez. "This dangerous release of hazardous materials affects the health of our community, and the refinery's failure to notify in a timely way obstructed an emergency response that could have reduced harm. My office is working closely with CCH to fully investigate this incident as provided in the County's Industrial Safety Ordinance."
CCH will recommend at the January meeting of the Contra Costa County's Ad Hoc Committee for the Industrial Safety Ordinance and Community Warning System that the County organize an independent, community-involved investigation of the incident, parallel to the investigation MRC is required to conduct.
The release began about 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 and continued into the early hours of Nov. 25, showering the surrounding community in the dust-like substance. MRC did not report the release via the county's Community Warning System or directly to CCH, as required by the county notification policy.
CCH learned about the release from media accounts two days after it began. Subsequent laboratory testing determined the substance contained elevated levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium, and zinc. Prolonged exposure to these metals can lead to health concerns.
While airborne, the substance could have also potentially caused respiratory symptoms in people who breathed it. Had MRC followed the notification policy, the Community Warning System would have been activated to notify the community about the hazard.
"Our mission at CCH is to care for the health of our community. We can't meet that obligation without timely notification from a facility when an incident like this happens," CCH Chief Executive Officer Anna Roth said. "Our Hazardous Materials team responds quickly to these notices to ensure people have the information they need, when they need it, to take protective actions. We will work with residents of Martinez, city leaders and the facility on a transparent investigation into why that did not happen in this case."
The release, as well as a Dec. 9 flaring incident that prompted dozens of 911 calls, have raised safety concerns in surrounding neighborhoods and generated many questions about health.
To update the community about recent events and address concerns, the City of Martinez in partnership with CCH will hold a virtual town hall meeting on Monday, Dec. 19, at 6 p.m. CCH will participate at the city's invitation to address questions about health and regulation of the facility. Use this link to attend.
"Martinez is working closely with our partners to ensure that every resident has access to the facts about these incidents, and an opportunity to participate in making our community safer," Mayor Brianne Zorn said. "We fully expect the Martinez Refining Company will do whatever it takes to become a better neighbor. What has happened the past few weeks is unacceptable."
The most recent incident began at 4:46 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 9, when a loud noise and large flame from a refinery flare prompted dozens of 911 calls from near the refinery.
Contra Costa County Fire Protection District and refinery officials quickly determined the flare was operating as designed and did not pose a fire-related safety risk to the surrounding community. CCH conducted air monitoring and determined there was no health risk to the community from gases leaving the refinery.
The flaring incident remains under investigation. MRC's 72-hour report about it, as well as all public documents related to the November release, are available at cchealth.org/hazmat.
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