Martinez reels from refinery’s hazardous fallout
It was the morning after Thanksgiving when residents of the Bay Area town of Martinez awoke to find their homes, cars and yards covered in a mysterious pale residue.
Although the dust resembled ash, no wildfires were burning nearby. When local residents called the local authorities, they learned nothing.
But then, more than a month later, the Contra Costa County Health Department released a two-page notice informing residents that the “white dust” was a hazardous material released by the Martinez Refining Co. on the northern outskirts became.
The health advisor urged residents to contact health care providers if they had a cough or difficulty breathing, and that the health department recommended not eating food grown in soil that had been exposed to the material.
Today, residents of this tight-knit community 30 miles northeast of San Francisco still want to know the risks they face after 20 tons of spent catalyst were dumped on homes in the area, and why it was so difficult to get answers.
While the county has launched an investigation into why the refinery failed to issue an alert, residents have accused county health officials of failing to properly notify residents of potential health hazards long after the incident. They say a first health notice dated Jan. 11 was seen by too few people, and that it wasn’t until a second notice on March 7 that people realized not to eat fruit from their trees or vegetables from their garden.
“Not only have I given this to my husband, my son and myself, but also to my 90-year-old mother,” said Penny Bristow-Wendt, who lives a mile south of the refinery. “Why weren’t we notified earlier?”
Test samples of the residue showed metals such as aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc. However, the tests did not distinguish which types of chromium were detected, which could be an important distinction. Hexavalent chromium, for example, is a potent carcinogen that does not have a safe exposure level, while trivalent chromium is considered much less toxic.
County health officials have insisted that the biggest health risks were short-term respiratory effects from inhaling the pollution during the two days it was released, and that serious health problems are generally associated with long-term exposure to high levels of the material are.
They said their warnings were issued out of caution.
“It’s kind of a difficult balance because you don’t want to scare people unnecessarily,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, the district health officer. “But we also don’t want to falsely reassure people. We just want to say, let’s see what the results say, then we’ll have more information for you.”
Such remarks, however, did little to placate local residents. Four months after the release, some are calling for health officials to speed up soil sampling to determine how far the fallout has spread.
“The lack of notification is just unscrupulous,” resident Christina Reich said during a recent public hearing. “It’s criminal. And we really need to do better and we need to speed up testing immediately. We need to find out exactly the full extent of what is going on, how far these contaminants have spread and what impact they are having.”
Another resident, who identified himself only as Jeffrey, complained that he ate eggs laid by the chickens he keeps at his home.
“That’s terribly late information to say, ‘Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be eating your veggies,'” he said. “How do we know that [the refinery] will have any kind of accountability? It just seems like these companies in this country do these horrible, horrible things to the public and then they can just wash their hands and go on and do it again a few months later.”
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is working on a computer model to determine how far pollutants may have spread, which is expected to help focus the county’s soil samples. Meanwhile, the county assembled an 11-member oversight committee made up of residents, government officials and refinery officials and interviewed a company to conduct a risk assessment that included a soil analysis.
Once a contractor is chosen, soil sampling can begin, according to local officials. According to Lauren Sugayan, deputy city manager and member of the oversight committee, the lab results are expected to be released in early to mid-summer.
Still, residents felt they couldn’t wait that long. Bristow-Wendt, who has lived in her home since 1998, began growing vegetables in her garden as a hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as food prices skyrocketed with inflation, she said it soon became a necessity.
“It was like, ‘Are you kidding me? $3 for zucchini?’” Bristow-Wendt said. “And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Realizing that it would take months to test their soil, Bristow-Wendt took it upon himself to test it. She contacted the company that did the initial sampling of the metalliferous dust for the Health Department and Air District and found that the soil in her yard contained elevated levels of aluminum.
Martinez residents have long had a strained relationship with the refinery, which produces gasoline, asphalt products, and jet and diesel fuels. In October 2021, the refinery’s previous owner, Shell Oil Products USA, agreed to pay $433,000 to resolve 44 air quality compliance violation reports submitted to the company in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Martinez Refining bought the refinery from Shell in 2020.
Troubles began four days before Thanksgiving, officials said, when the refinery experienced a “disgruntled unit” — a malfunction that caused workers to halt operations. When refining stopped, they turned off emission control mechanisms that reduce the amount of particulate matter released from smokestacks.
However, when workers resumed operations, emissions controls were not turned back on. Around 9:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, the smokestacks began releasing spent catalyst, which is produced when crude oil is broken down.
After the release, the Air District issued a public nuisance infraction, while the county health department referred two infractions to the Contra County District Attorney’s Office — one for failure to notify proper authorities of a release of hazardous materials and one for unauthorized discharge into the county’s stormwater system. Prosecutors are reviewing the matter and will decide whether to press charges in the coming months, spokesman Ted Asregadoo said.
A spokesman for Martinez Refining said the company is cooperating with all government agencies and investigations related to the Nov. 24 release. “While this incident is still under investigation, we have no further comment at this time,” they said.
Adjacent to adjacent homes, the refinery sits about 1,000 feet north of a drinking water reservoir that supplies the town. County officials say treated water is safe and continues to meet federal drinking water standards. Any heavy metals in the raw water are said to be removed by treatment processes.
While residents are asking officials for answers, they have also questioned the county’s and city’s methods of communication. Carlota Canari, who lives less than half a mile south of the refinery with her husband and three sons, wonders why the recommendation not to eat produce from local gardens wasn’t communicated through the community’s emergency alert system.
“How many people have eaten the oranges or lemons and who knows what else they are consuming at this time of year? Or what if they grow vegetables? Asparagus, broccoli – you name it. I don’t know. There are no answers.”
Sugayan, Martinez’s deputy city manager, said the city communicates through an email newsletter, its website and social media. And soon, residents will receive email updates on community meetings that will be attached to water bills.
But perhaps the biggest dilemma facing officials is that definitive proof of contamination is months away.
“All we want is to reduce fear and anxiety with answers,” Sugayan said. “But as the health department has said, you have to follow the science. I understand it’s really difficult for the public, but we’re doing everything we can to host community meetings to encourage this and provide verbal updates.
https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2023-04-02/martinez-refinerys-hazardous-materials Martinez reels from refinery’s hazardous fallout