A powdery substance released into the community by Martinez Refining Company (MRC) last week contained higher-than-normal amounts of heavy metals, tests of samples collected by Contra Costa Health (CCH) show.
CCH does not believe there is an immediate health risk to the community. The most significant health risks were short-term respiratory impacts from breathing in the metals in the hours after the release. Exposure to high concentrations of these metals over a long period of time could cause more serious health problems.
The accidental release of “spent catalyst” from the refinery began about 9:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving and into the early morning hours of Friday, Nov. 25. CCH’s testing of samples taken near the refinery showed levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium, and zinc higher than normal background levels for those metals.
CCH and the County’s Community Warning System were not notified of the release as required by law. CCH’s HazMat team learned about the release on Saturday morning after seeing community complaints about white dust on surfaces near the refinery. In its amended 72-hour report regarding the incident submitted to the health department, MRC says it is investigating why those notifications were not made.
“Martinez residents need an immediate response when there is a release at the refinery,” said Deputy Health Director Matt Kaufmann. “MRC’s failure to follow notification procedure cost us critical time we could have used to warn the public and reduce health risks in the community. It’s unacceptable.”
Anyone exposed to the material released from the Martinez refinery who is experiencing respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sore throat or difficulty breathing should contact their healthcare provider. People should avoid handling or breathing any remaining dust that has settled on the ground or other surfaces.
“We are concerned for people’s health anytime they are exposed to toxic metals,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, health officer for Contra Costa County. “Our goal going forward is to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
MRC, owned by PBF Energy, had initially told the community that its own testing of samples collected from the release suggested it was a non-toxic mixture of materials. The company also offered free carwash vouchers to Martinez residents.
Industrial facilities such as MRC are required by state law and county policy to immediately report the release or suspected release of hazardous materials to emergency response authorities, including the county’s Community Warning System, which sends text and telephone messages with emergency instructions to affected parts of the county.
CCH is continuing to investigate the incident and will hold MRC to its legal responsibilities to cooperate with its review of this release. More information will be posted at cchealth.org as it becomes available.