Contra Costa Health Services is demanding the investigation of a release of hazardous metals into the air from a Thanksgiving weekend flare-up at the Martinez Refining Company, which left neighborhoods covered in “mysterious white ash.”
Something unusual and then-unexplained happened at the often-troubled Martinez refinery over Thanksgiving weekend. KGO described this odd occurrence at the time with the headline “Mysterious white ash coats neighborhoods near Martinez Refinery.” That story noted that the Martinez Refining Company that operates the refinery “claims they are naturally occurring materials considered non-toxic and non-hazardous, and pose no health risks,” and that the “refinery is offering free car washes to those affected by the fallout.”
But Contra Costa Health Services was skeptical that this was just a matter of some dust on cars. A few days later, KPIX reported that health agency’s investigation “found ‘higher than normal’ levels of heavy metals, including aluminum, barium, chromium, nickel, vanadium and zinc” in the white ash that covered plenty more than just cars. Then the refinery was seen a couple weeks later doing some dramatic flaring, which they said was meant to burn off deposits as part of an "ongoing special operation." KRON4 reported at the time, however, that the flaring was needed because of an equipment problem.
On Wednesday of this week, according to KPIX, Contra Costa Health (CCH) asked the district attorney to investigate and consider legal action against Martinez Refining Company, claiming the refinery “released more than 20 tons of metal-laden dust into the community over the Thanksgiving holiday.”
"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," Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors chair John Gioia said in a CCH Press release. "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."
The material in the dust and ash released is called “spent catalyst.” The CCH says that that material “could have potentially caused respiratory symptoms in people who breathed it,” and adds that “prolonged exposure to these metals can lead to health concerns.”
So there is a call for Contra Costa County District Attorney Dian Becton to investigate and potentially take legal action here, but Becton’s office has not commented on the matter. Her office has 30 days to decide whether to take any action on the referral. But Becton does have some track record to indicate how she’ll handle the matter. Because also in November, she forced Chevron to pay a settlement over a diesel spill into the San Francisco Bay, though financial terms of that settlement have not been made public.
Related: Dramatic Flaring and Smoke Plumes at Martinez Oil Refinery Alarm Community [SFist]