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Martinez Refinery's Chemical Release Poses No Long-Term Hazard, Tests Find

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The silver smoke stacks of a large oil refinery loom above a city street where vehicles and a stoplight appear in the foreground
After PBF Energy's Martinez refinery released 24 tons of potentially hazardous material into the surrounding community last November, residents said their neighborhoods were coated in a substance resembling ash. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Updated 6:10 p.m. Thursday

Contra Costa County health officials announced Thursday that soil testing conducted in the months after a Martinez oil refinery released nearly 50,000 pounds of powdered industrial chemicals last November has found no long-term health risks to residents in the area.

Contra Costa Health Officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli said the county is immediately lifting a March 7 advisory (PDF) that recommended residents refrain from consuming fruits and vegetables grown in soil that had received fallout from the Martinez Refining Company’s release. The refinery company is owned and operated by PBF Energy, based in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Tzvieli said the soil testing and an associated risk assessment “confirms that the primary health risk from the spent catalyst release occurred in the initial hours and days after the refinery release.”

The soil-testing results were released to a community oversight committee formed after the releases, which occurred last Nov. 24–25, on Thanksgiving and the following day.

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Tzvieli added during a media briefing that followed the committee meeting that because PBF failed to immediately notify officials about the release, questions remain about what health effects residents might experience because of their exposure to the toxic dust immediately after it settled on their neighborhoods.

“We weren’t able to do measurement in real time because we didn’t know this was going on until several days later,” Tzvieli said. “So had we been able to do measurement in real time, we would have been able to look at concentrations — what was in the air.”

Some of the heavy metals in the dust, such as nickel, pose health concerns, he said.

“Some of those can have effects on the immune system, some of these metals can be carcinogenic. So it is a concerning incident,” he said.

At the same time, he added, the inability to measure the November release as it was occurring makes it hard to distinguish the hazard the incident posed from the impact of ongoing refinery emissions.

“So that’s why it’s hard to give people specific information about the risks that stemmed from this particular release,” Tzvieli said.

Consultants hired by the county analyzed soil samples from 14 sites stretching from El Sobrante to Benicia for more than a dozen metals that may have been associated with the release of 24 tons of refinery dust — material described as “spent catalyst” used in the refining process.

The results for most of the heavy metals the samples were analyzed for, including aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc and chromium, all came back both within an expected regional background range and below residential health limits set by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Jenny Phillips, a toxicologist employed by consultant TRC, reported that samples of arsenic and lead were close to or exceeded state health limits at a handful of sites. But she added that the higher levels of those two toxic metals were probably unrelated to last November’s refinery release. TRC’s report will be made available to the public sometime in the next two weeks, and it will be open for comment for 45 days.

Matt Kaufmann, Contra Costa County’s deputy health director, emphasized that the investigation of the Martinez incident is far from over. The county has hired a consultant to perform an independent root cause analysis of the release, and county prosecutors are weighing potential charges against the refinery.

Kaufmann criticized the refining company for failing to immediately notify local officials when the incident occurred.

The test results released Thursday “do not excuse the Martinez Refining Company for the lack of notification at the onset of this incident,” he said. “The lack of timely notification negated our ability as health officials to protect our community, including those most vulnerable, namely the medically compromised, the elderly and the children within our community.”

In a statement, PBF Energy spokesperson Brandon Matson said the company was “pleased” the county had released the soil-testing analysis and lifted its health advisory.

“The results are in line with our initial statements about the material,” Matson said. He also offered the latest in a string of apologies the company has offered to Martinez residents, saying the company has investigated the release, has identified corrective actions and is committed to implementing them.

Tony Semenza, a Martinez resident serving on the oversight committee, expressed frustration that it has taken so long to assess the hazard posed by the releases.

“One hundred ninety-four days after the release, we are now at the point where we’re telling people it’s OK to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Semenza said. “The process is flawed. This should have been done much quicker, a while ago. … I’m upset with the way the process works.”

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The test results come less than two weeks after the FBI confirmed it has launched a joint investigation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the Martinez plant’s spent catalyst release.

Members of the refinery accountability group Healthy Martinez welcomed the largely reassuring test results, but expressed continuing misgivings about PBF and the refinery.

“I’m grateful that the Thanksgiving release no longer poses serious danger and that Contra Costa Health has demonstrated leadership in this process, but I still don’t trust the refinery that didn’t report it,” said Martinez resident group member Jillian Elliott.

“Today’s results are only one piece of the larger issue,” said Heidi Taylor, a longtime Martinez resident and Healthy Martinez member. “It doesn’t change the fact that this oil refinery dumped toxic metals on our community (and) didn’t report it to county health.”

Healthy Martinez has also called on PBF to install improved emissions control and air monitoring equipment at the refinery.

FBI agents and EPA personnel have gone door to door asking residents about their experience during and after the incident. The probe also has included circulation of an online survey.

Martinez resident Wendy Ke said representatives from both federal agencies approached her late last month and asked a series of questions.

“It was primarily, ‘Do you have photos, do you have videos, do you have factual documentation? Did you touch the spent catalyst? Did you see it?’” Ke said.

She said the morning after Thanksgiving, her neighborhood was coated with what looked like ash, as if there had been a major wildfire nearby.

“But it did look a little bit different,” she said. “It didn’t have a light-weight ash to it, like flaky ash. It seemed a little more sticky.”

The same morning, resident Zachary Taylor found his neighborhood covered in dust.

“Just a consistent coating across everything, almost like a snowfall, like a light dusting, but then we go out across the street and absolutely everything is covered with it,” Taylor said.

A fine white powder collected on the edges and near the windshield wiper of a car shown in close detail.
Refinery dust known as ‘spent catalyst’ from the PBF Energy plant sits on a car windshield in Martinez in late November 2022. (Courtesy of Anna Encarnacion)

Refinery catalyst is a powdered chemical compound used in the process of breaking down crude petroleum into products like gasoline. Spent catalyst is the material left over after the high-temperature refining process and contains a mix of potentially hazardous components.

Before Thursday’s test results were released, county health officials told Martinez residents that the dust that coated homes, vehicles, lawns, gardens and a nearby schoolyard included heavy metals (PDF), including aluminum, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc. The county health department said there could have been short-term respiratory problems from breathing in the dust right after the incident, and that potential long-term health impacts would depend on each person’s exposure.

Contra Costa County hired TRC, a Connecticut-based consulting and engineering firm, to take soil samples in 14 locations (PDF) from El Sobrante to Martinez to Benicia. Those locations were chosen after local air regulators mapped fallout from the release (PDF). Crews began collecting samples in May. Health officials say the samples were taken to a lab to see which health risks they might pose through touching, inhaling or consuming food.

In March, months after the refinery accident, the health department urged residents to refrain from eating food grown in soil that might contain the refinery dust (PDF).

The department also asked local prosecutors to file charges against PBF Energy. That request is under review, according to Ted Asregadoo, a Contra Costa County District Attorney spokesperson.

Asregadoo said the office is investigating whether PBF violated the law by failing to report an actual or threatened hazardous material release to county officials and whether the company made illegal discharges into the county stormwater system.

County officials have emphasized that they learned about the releases not from the refinery but instead from residents. The refinery initially told residents that its testing suggested the release consisted of only nontoxic material. The company also offered free carwash vouchers to Martinez residents.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has said the release was caused by a malfunction (PDF) within the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit. The air district has issued 21 notices of violation against PBF in connection with the November release and continues to investigate the incident, according to district spokesperson Ralph Borrmann.

PBF representatives have apologized for the releases, noting the company has cooperated with regulators and made changes to prevent a repeat of the Thanksgiving incident.

Nevertheless, some refinery neighbors say their sense of safety has been shattered.

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“At this point I feel very uncertain about what I’m breathing, knowing what the potential is for release on a daily basis,” said Ke, who has lived in Martinez for more than a decade.

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